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

China Change, October 31, 2018

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


Xu Youyu, screenshot photo

Xu Youyu. Photo: China Change.


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

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

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

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

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

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

YC: Where were you in 1989?

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

YC: Just like that?

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

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

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

YC: What of the blood?

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

YC: Can you briefly introduce us to your scholarship?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

YC: What’s your involvement in Charter 08?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

YC: How long were you detained?

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

YC: What was it like for a Chinese philosopher?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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




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

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

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


Xu Youyu’s work in Chinese:



Xu Youyu’s essays in Chinese:



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Hu Shigen: The Prominent Yet Obscure Political Prisoner

Ren Bumei, August 2, 2016

In 2005, when Hu Shigen was serving the 13th year of his 20 year prison sentence for forming the Chinese Free Democratic Party, he was awarded that year’s Outstanding Democracy Activist Award by the California-based Chinese Democracy Education Foundation. This is an excerpt of a speech given by exiled dissident Ren Bumei (任不寐) titled “Hu Shigen and the Highest Aspirations of Our Age” (《 胡石根与我们时代的精神高度》), upon accepting the award on Hu’s behalf. Hu, among the first four of the July 9, 2015 detainees to be indicted, is being put through a show trial today (August 3, Beijing Time) in the Tianjin Second People’s Intermediate Court. This is our first post in a series about Hu Shigen. — The Editors.


Hu ShigenI’m grateful for the trust and confidence placed in me by Hu Shigen’s family and friends that allowed me, unworthy as I am, to share the honor bestowed on Mr. Hu. As a matter of fact, I can hardly represent Mr. Hu to say anything to the jury or the public. He’s spent 13 dark years in prison, and this award will add little to his suffering or glory. Instead, it is an opportunity for us. So today, I’d rather speak as an independent intellectual, recognizing the value of Hu Shigen’s existence for our time, and what it symbolizes for China’s cause of freedom.  

Mr. Hu Shigen was born in the countryside of Nanchang City, Jiangxi Province, on November 14, 1954. His father, extremely impoverished, died when Hu was five — after putting up for adoption the three youngest of seven children. Hu Shigen didn’t begin his schooling until he was nine years old, when he enrolled in the Shitou Street Elementary School in Nanchang. As the oldest boy, at age 16 Hu began working at the Jiangxi Automobile Manufacturing Factory to support the family. In 1979 he passed the national college entrance exams to become a student at Peking University in Beijing. From 1979 to 1985, Hu Shigen studied at PKU, majoring in Chinese language (中国语言专业).* After graduate school, he was assigned to a teaching position at Beijing Language College (now Beijing Language and Culture University). He was quickly promoted to be an associate professor and vice department chair. He would have lived as a comfortable professor, but the arrival of the Tiananmen Movement and the June 4th massacre changed his life forever.   

Hu didn’t exhibit much political passion during the “soul-racking 56 days” of protest and repression. But it was in the post-Tiananmen period, when droves of student leaders and participants like myself were fleeing Beijing, telling of our escapes at every opportunity, and the entire country was shrouded in terror, that Hu Shigen came into his own.

Thus, June 4, 1989, became a dividing line. Those who continued to resist in the midst of the terror lock-down were the real political heroes of China. The manner of Hu Shigen’s resistance was regarded by many as radical. I don’t know until this day whether this was a scholarly, rational assessment, or just a cover for cowardice. Hu Shigen initiated the Chinese Free Democratic Party (中国自由民主党), the Chinese Progressive Alliance (中华进步同盟) and the Chinese Free Workers’ Union (中国自由工会) with Wang Guoqi (王国齐), Wang Tiancheng (王天成), Kang Yuchun (康玉春), An Ning (安宁), Liu Jingsheng (刘京生), Chen Wei (陈卫), Chen Qinglin (陈青林), Xing Hongwei (刑宏伟), Gao Yuxiang (高玉祥), Zhang Chengzhu (张承珠), Xu Dongling (许东岭), Zhao Xin (赵昕) and many more. They printed, posted, and mailed thousands of fliers promoting freedom and democracy, condemning dictatorship, and calling for a redressal of the June 4th Massacre.

They were planning to rain down fliers on Tiananmen Square from a remote-controlled airplane on the third anniversary of June 4. But their plans were leaked, and on May 28, 1992, Hu was arrested as the “principal organizer of a counter-revolutionary ring.”

Those who were tried with him told us how, in the fascist court, he roared thunderously, like a lion. We learned from eyewitnesses that he and his accomplices adopted a no-compromise, no-cooperation stance in court, and that he and Wang Guoqi, Wang Tiancheng, and Chen Wei, even shouted “Long Live Freedom and Democracy!” and “Down with the Chinese Communist Party!” Even today I still feel a quiver when I imagine the scene. What gives us pause is this: Why are these commonsense convictions still so shocking and unnerving?

Of course no one was more shocked by such resolve than the authorities. At the end of the “trial,” Mr. Hu Shigen was sentenced to 20 years in prison for “the crime of organizing a counter-revolutionary ring” and “the crime of  counter-revolutionary propaganda.” He and his peers were among the few democracy activists to receive such lengthy sentences in the post-June 4 years.

In 1995 Mr. Hu Shigen was sent to Beijing Second Prison to serve his term. That prison became notorious because of him. He fasted on June 4 every year to commemorate the massacre and the dead. For nine years he was locked up in a brig cell (禁闭室) for “rejecting reform” and “inciting disturbances.” Because of police brutality, his hands and feet are permanently crippled. This year The Washington Post interviewed John Kamm of the Dui Hua Foundation. According to Mr. Kamm, the Chinese government told him that Hu Shigen was not qualified for parole based on his attitude toward reforming himself. So Mr. Hu Shigen is continuing his one man defiance of the state.  

I agree with the assessment of others: Hu Shigen is a prominent political prisoner that few know about. Even though over 20 people across China were thrown in jail in the case of the “Chinese Free Democratic Party,” and it has been declared the biggest “counter-revolutionary ring” since 1989, the case has received little media attention, and few have paid attention to Mr. Hu Shigen’s conditions. Early last year, a friend googled “胡石根” and found only 600 or so results.    

Just as the prophets of the Old Testament said: misfortunes doubles down on those who were chosen to be the light and the salt, and put through tribulations. Hu Shigen and his like are not only the enemies of tyranny, they have also been forgotten by our times and rejected by their contemporaries — in particular by their dearest loved ones. The latter is so destructive that it resembles the work of Satan. Zhao Xin, a close friend of Mr. Hu Shigen, vividly recalled how Hu was slashed by his wife with a knife, eleven slashes in all, for not listening to her demands that he cease his activities. The marriage fell apart after 12 years, and he has met his daughter only once over the years since.

Hu Shigen_brothers

Hu Shigen’s two younger brothers traveled to Tianjin to attend his trial on August 1. Upon arrival, they were seized by security police and sent back to Nanchang, Jiangxi province.

Having spent 13 years in prison, he has developed health conditions that have never been effectively treated, such as hepatitis B, lumbar disc herniation, rheumatoid arthritis, and migraines. On October 17, 2004, his older sister Hu Fengyun wrote to the prison authorities voicing her concern about his health. On December 9, 2004, his younger brother Hu Shuigen wrote me that his health had been deteriorating rapidly and he was afraid that Hu Shigen might die in prison. He called on the international media and human rights groups to “save” Hu Shigen.

In May last year, I met someone in Zhengzhou who was a “criminal” in the same case as Hu Shigen. That was when I began to learn of his story, and I was shaken to the core. While I was ashamed of myself, it was also the first time since 1989 that I felt so proud of China: in this society of victims of political disaster, we have Hu Shigen. I hugged this friend and bid him goodbye, determined to speak out for Hu Shigen.  

I don’t mean to create a Hu Shigen myth, for the story of Hu Shigen is already a myth of our times.

Hu Shigen seems to be the post-Tiananmen Wang Weilin — but he’s not. That photograph of Wang as The Tank Man hangs on the office walls of numerous political activists around the world — but no one has heard of Hu Shigen. And yet, Hu Shigen is the Wang Weilin of the post-Tiananmen era. Hu Shigen, also, both is and isn’t the Václav Havel of China. After the June 4 crackdown, China’s intellectuals placed their hopes in a Havel-like figure, and yet no Chinese care to mention the Havel of China. Hu Shigen is also the Lin Zhao after Lin Zhao, the young women executed in custody during the Cultural Revolution, after a prison sentence of 20 years for two poems she wrote. And yet he’s not that, either. At a time when everyone is tearfully searching for Lin Zhao, Hu Shigen has assumed the same suffering, and the same propensity to shock the soul as she — and yet no one has written a word about him. In the peculiar age we live in, not only has Lin Zhao become a hero (which is as it should be), those who memorialize her have also become heroes (which is also of course as it should be), but Hu Shigen is the post-Lin Zhao Lin Zhao. Hu Shigen is also the Sophie of China — but also not. In China Sophie’s Choice has become a code word for the misery of the Cultural Revolution, in ways parallel to the misery of the Holocaust. Hu Shigen, on the other hand, is right now being tormented by his own choice, yet is absent from all this lofty discussion. Yet, Hu Shigen is the Sophie of China. Hu Shigen is China’s Aung San Suu Kyi  — but also not. Aung San Suu Kyi received the attention and support of the world, including the adulation of China’s intellectuals — yet Hu for over a decade has not received an ounce of similar respect. But all the same, Hu Shigen is China’s Aung San Suu Kyi.

Hu Shigen has also fallen into a spiritual prison that’s been built around him — this is the shame of our entire generation of “public intellectuals.” The fact that they are not even ashamed of this makes it all the more shameful. Chaim Weizmann, the first president of Israel, lamented in a famous speech: “When the historian of the future assembles the black record of our days, he will find two things unbelievable: first, the crime itself; second the reaction of the world to that crime. He will sift the evidence again and again before he will be able to give credence to the fact that, in the twentieth century of the Christian era, a great and cultivated nation put power into a band of assassins who transformed murder from a secret transgression into a publicly avowed government policy to be carried out with all the paraphernalia of State. He will find the monstrous story of the human slaughterhouses, the lethal chambers, the sealed trains, taxing the powers of belief… But when that historian, overwhelmed by the tragic evidence, sets down the verdict of the future upon this savage phenomenon, unique in the annals of mankind, he will be troubled by still another circumstance. He will be puzzled by the apathy of the civilized world in the face of this immense, systematic carnage of human beings…”

But allow me alter those famous words for our use: “When the historian of the future assembles the black record of our days, he will find two things unbelievable: first, the Hu Shigen case itself; second, the fact that this age produced a such a ceaseless number of outstanding public intellectuals in China. He will sift the evidence again and again before he will be able to give credence to the fact that, in the twentieth century, a nation that has produced so many public-spirited intellectuals, has put power into a band of assassins who transformed violence and imprisonment into a publicly avowed government policy to be carried out with all the paraphernalia of State — and where matters of such great import never became the topic of open discussion among the country’s intellectuals. He might find that the story of the persecution of Hu Shigen, for establishing the Chinese Free Democratic Party, taxes the powers of belief. But when that historian, overwhelmed by the tragic evidence, sets down the verdict of the future upon this savage phenomenon, unique in the annals of China, he will be troubled by still another circumstance. He will be puzzled by the apathy of China, international human rights organizations, and public intellectuals, in the face of this immense, systematic persecution of Hu Shigen.”


*Hu Shigen was a college classmate of Hu Chunhua (胡春华), the Chinese Communist Party Politburo member and current Party Secretary of Guangdong province. According to Mr. Wu Renhua, the researcher of the 1989 Tiananmen Movement, who shared the same bunk-bed with Hu Shigen in graduate school, since his release in 2008, whenever Hu Chunhua attended class reunions, Hu Shigen was excluded.


Ren Bumei is an exiled Chinese dissident living in France.



Yu Shiwen Hunger Strikes in Protest at Two Year Detention Without Trial For Holding Zhao Ziyang Memorial

China Change, May 3, 2016


YU Shiwen chen wei

Yu Shiwen and wife Chen Wei.

Shortly before June 4, 2014, ten citizens in Zhengzhou, the capital of Henan province, were arrested for holding a public memorial for Zhao Ziyang (赵紫阳), the late Communist Party leader who died under house arrest in 2005. Zhao’s crime was to show sympathy for students in the 1989 Tiananmen pro-democracy movement. The memorial was held in the open fields of China’s Central Plains, not far from Zhao’s hometown; now, all participants but Yu Shiwen (于世文) have since been released.

Mr. Yu was indicted on February 11, 2015, for “provoking disturbances.” But he hasn’t been sentenced, and is instead being kept in deplorable conditions as his health rapidly worsens. Both Yu Shiwen and his wife Chen Wei were college students in Guangzhou in 1989 and got involved in the democracy movement that took China by storm.

On March 9, 2016, Yu wrote an open letter to Ren Kai (任凯), the lead judge of the court in Zhengzhou, where his case was supposed to be tried, confronting his abuses and cowardice. Yu vowed: “I’ll hold you responsible for this for the rest of your life. You’ll be pursued by me forever, to the very ends of the earth.”  

On March 18, Yu was told that his trial had been postponed for the third time, supposedly approved by China’s Supreme Court.

On April 1, Yu’s lawyer Ma Lianshun (马连顺) submitted a complaint against the presiding judge and three other judicial personnel.

“The law doesn’t say who you can or can’t hold memorial services for,” the complaint said. “Moreover, Hu Yaobang (胡耀邦) and Zhao Ziyang were both former leaders of the Party and state, and made great contributions to the reform and opening of China. When Zhao Ziyang died, he was cremated at the Babaoshan revolutionary cemetery. Why can’t Yu Shiwen, who shared the same hometown with Zhao, memorialize the latter’s death? Why all of a sudden is it a matter of picking quarrels and provoking trouble?”


Participants in the public memorial took a group photo in front of Zhao Ziyang’s birth place, February 2014.

The argument continued: “None of the defendants [referring to the judges] independently exercised their judicial authority. They did not scrupulously follow the constitution and the law as required in China’s Judge’s Law. Judicial cases must be founded in the facts, the law must be the criterion for judgement, cases must be handled impartially, and judges must not bend the law to favor their associates or other officials. Refusing to exercise proper judicial judgement, detaining Mr. Yu for two years with the clear knowledge that he was innocent of the crime, and refusing to promptly exercise judicial supervision over procuratorial power as required by law—all of this, according to Article 399 of the Criminal Law, constitutes a crime.”  

On April 28 Yu Shiwen’s wife Chen Wei published an open letter to the president of the Supreme People’s Court Zhou Qiang (周强) titled “A Captive Who’s Neither Been Tried, Sentenced, Nor Released,” (《一名不审不判不放的被羁押者》) in which she wrote: “The procedures under which this case was heard are shockingly preposterous, and even the Supreme People’s Court played a special role in how it was handled.”

Chen wrote that every time the Guancheng District Court of Zhengzhou city postponed the trial, it provided Yu Shiwen’s lawyer with a letter saying that it had received the approval of the Supreme People’s Court for the “postponement.” Each postponement was for three months. But the court refused to give Yu’s lawyer an explanation of the reason for the postponements, and also refused to provide them the authorization documents from the Supreme People’s Court.

“Just like that, my husband became a non-person, a lonely prisoner that no one was responsible for. His fate was simply ‘set aside’ in this inconceivable fashion. His future, family, happiness, and career—all was taken away. His life was frozen, given over to an indeterminate ‘postponement.’”

“During  the nearly two years he has been held captive like this….in a tiny cell about 30 square meters, curling up with a dozen other prisoners in a long bed with little room to move around and only occasional yard time. You can imagine the torment and helplessness he suffers!”

“For my own part, every day is spent enduring bottomless anxiety. Yu Shiwen suffers high blood pressure, cerebrovascular disease, and in late 2012 he suffered a serious stroke. He suffered another stroke shortly after he was detained, and spent four months in the detention center hospital. My mother-in-law, 86 years old, is sick from worrying about her son. I can’t help but worry that she won’t live to see her son again.”

On May 2, the lawyer met with Yu Shiwen again, who had been fasting for nearly a week in protest against his treatment. Though extremely weak, Yu said he’s going to resist until the end—to use his death as protest, if need be. He said: “Tell my friends to take care! This is how I’m leaving!”



Prominent 1989ers Voice Support for Yu Shiwen

The Zhengzhou Twelve

The Torchbearers – Participants in the 1989 Democracy Movement Who Are Currently in Prison




The Torchbearers – Participants in the 1989 Democracy Movement Who Are Currently in Prison

By Wang Yaqiu, published: June 4, 2015


Liu Xiaobo (刘晓波)

Liu Xiaobo in 1989, second from left.

Liu Xiaobo in 1989, second from right.

In the spring of 1989, Dr. Liu Xiaobo left Columbia University where he was a visiting scholar and went back to Beijing to take part in the democracy movement.  In Tiananmen Square, he became a leader and a mentor, drafting open letters, giving speeches and leading a hunger strike. Liu Xiaobo was instrumental in preventing further bloodshed by negotiating with the troops and persuading students to evacuate the Tiananmen Square in the early hours of June 4th.

After the crackdown, Liu was identified by the Chinese government as one of the instigators of the “turmoil” and jailed for two years. After being released in 1991, Liu published articles and gave interviews, urging the Chinese government to redress its actions in cracking down the protest and the grievances of the parents whose children were killed. He also drafted petitions to advocate for rule of law and democracy in China, and he called for dialogues between the Chinese government and the Dalai Lama.

In May 1995, he was arrested and held without charges for six months. In October 1996, he was sentenced to three years of “reeducation through labor” (劳教), a form of arbitrary administrative detention, for “disturbing social order.”

In the early 2000s, Liu wrote a large quantity of articles, published three books, and became the director of the Independent Chinese PEN center, a writers’ organization promoting free expression. At the same time, he was subject to surveillance and harassment.

In 2008, Liu was arrested for coauthoring Charter 08 (零八宪章), a manifesto calling for democratic reform in China. About 300 Chinese intellectuals signed the Charter initially, and all of them were later interrogated and threatened by the Chinese government. In December 2009, a Beijing court sentenced Liu to 11 years in prison for “inciting subversion of state power.”

Liu is the recipient of the 2009 PEN/Barbara Goldsmith Freedom to Write Award, the 2010 Alison Des Forges Award for Extraordinary Activism, and the 2010 Nobel Peace Prize. Liu is currently incarcerated in Jinzhou Prison (锦州监狱) in Liaoning Province. His wife Liu Xia (刘霞) has been held under house arrest since the announcement of the Nobel Prize.


Liu Xianbin (刘贤斌)

Liu Xianbin (left) and Chen Wei went to Suining  High School together.

Liu Xianbin (left) and Chen Wei went to Suining High School together.

Liu Xianbin, a Sichuan native, was a student at Renmin University in Beijing when he took part in the pro-democracy protests in Tiananmen Square.  After the crackdown, Liu continued to organize activities until in 1991 when he was sentenced to two years and six months in prison for “counterrevolutionary propaganda and incitement (反革命宣传煽动罪).”

After being released in 1993, Liu quickly resumed activism. He penned essays and petitions, campaigned for the release of other dissidents, and helped establish the China Democracy Party, which has been outlawed since 1998. As a result, Liu became a target of frequent house raids and interrogations. In 1999, Liu was given a 13-year prison term for “inciting subversion of state power (煽动颠覆国家政权罪).”

Liu was released in 2008. Once out of prison, Liu continued to write articles criticizing the Chinese one-party system, advocated for human rights cases, and organized gatherings to discuss political issues. Liu was also a signatory of Charter 08.

Liu was once again detained in June 2010 and, in March 2011, he was sentenced to 10 years in prison, again, for “inciting subversion of state power.” Liu has since been held in Sichuan Province’s Chuanzhong Prison (川中监狱).


Chen Wei (陈卫)

Chen Wei was a high school friend of Liu Xianbin and a student at Beijing Institute of Technology in 1989. For his role as a student leader, he was imprisoned after the Tiananmen movement until January 1991.

Chen was arrested again in 1992 for commemorating the Tiananmen Massacre and for organizing the China Freedom and Democracy Party. He was charged and sentenced to five years in prison for “counterrevolutionary propaganda and incitement.”

After he was released in 1997, Chen continued to organize democratic activities. He was the literary editor of Suining Culture (遂宁文化报), a small publication in his hometown, which was later shut down for publishing news about the banned Nobel Literature Prize laureate Gao Xingjian (高行健).  Chen was also a signatory of Charter 08.

In 2011, a Sichuan court sentenced Chen to nine years in prison for “inciting subversion of state power.” The conviction was based on the essays he had penned for overseas Chinese-language websites. Chen Wei is currently jailed in Nanchong (南充), Sichuan. The Chinese authorities prohibited his wife and their daughter from leaving the country.


Zhao Changqing (赵常青)

Zho Changqing released from prison on November 27, 2007.

Zho Changqing released from prison on November 27, 2007.

In 1989, Zhao Changqing was a history student at Shaanxi Normal University in the northwestern city of Xi’an. On May 23 that year he came to Beijing for the first time to join the student protests in Tiananmen Square. He was one of the leaders of the Autonomous Student Union of Non-Beijing Universities (外地高校学生联合会) in support of the movement.

After the crackdown, Zhao was held in Qincheng Prison in Beijing for four months. Zhao said that his life-time commitment to advancing democracy in China stemmed from his experience in Tiananmen Square and Qincheng prison (秦城监狱).

After he graduated from college in 1992, Zhao became a high school teacher. In 1997, he wrote an open letter to the Chinese government urging political reform. In 1998, Zhao campaigned in the election of local people’s representatives as an independent candidate. He was soon arrested and sentenced to three years in prison for “endangering state security.”

He was released in March, 2001. In 2002, he again drafted an open letter to the 16th Communist Party Congress calling for political reform, and he collected nearly 200 signatures. Zhao was later arrested and sentenced for “inciting subversion of state power.” He spent five years in prison until 2007.

In April 2014, a Beijing court sentenced Zhao Changqing to two and a half years in jail for his involvement in the New Citizens Movement. Zhao is currently serving his sentence in Weinan Prison (渭南监狱) in Shaanxi province. His wife and his toddler boy were forced to move out of their rental apartment due to police pressure on their landlord.


Chen Xi (陈西)

Chen Xi

Chen Xi

In 1989, Chen Xi was a 35-year-old administrative worker at Jinzhu University in Guiyang, the capital of Guizhou Province in southwestern China. He had been an active member of local salons that discussed political ideas. During the Tiananmen Movement, Chen Xi established the Patriotic and Democratic Union in Guiyang, in solidarity with students in Beijing. For that he was jailed for three years.

In 1995, three years after he had been released, he was arrested again for organizing the Guizhou branch of the China Democracy Party. A year later, a Guiyang court sentenced him to ten years in prison for “organizing and leading a counterrevolutionary group.”

After Chen was released in 2005, he continued to promote democracy, human rights and rule of law in China. He and several other Guizhou-based activists established the Guizhou Human Rights Forum, which was later declared an “illegal organization” by the authorities. Chen was also a signatory of Charter 08.

In November 2011, after announcing his intention to run for a seat in the local People’s Congress, Chen was detained. A month later, Chen was handed down a ten-year sentence for “inciting subversion of state power.” The conviction was based on dozens of articles Chen had written for overseas websites.

Chen is currently held at Xingyi Prison (兴义监狱) in Guizhou Province. According to his wife, Chen has been suffering from chronic diarrhea and other ailments. He has not been allowed to write letters with family and friends.


Zhang Lin (张林)

Zhang Lin

Zhang Lin

Zhang Lin graduated from Tsinghua University in Beijing in 1983. In 1989, while living and working in his home province of Anhui in southeastern China, he organized and led local citizens to participate in the democratic movement that was quickly spreading beyond Beijing. Zhang was arrested on June 8 and sentenced to two years in prison.

After Zhang was released in 1991, he organized several underground groups to promote democracy and human rights. One of those groups was the Labor Rights Protection Union, for which he was sentenced to three years of “reeducation through labor” in 1994.

In 1997, after his release, he came to the United States and became an active member in the overseas Chinese democratic movement. However, when he returned to China in October 1998, he was arrested upon arrival and later given another three years of “reeducation through labor.”

In January 2005, Zhang was detained after returning from a failed attempt to attend a memorial service for the deposed Chinese leader Zhao Ziyang (赵紫阳).  In August, a court in Anhui sentenced Zhang to five years in prison for “inciting subversion of state power” and the conviction was based on his online writings and interviews he had given to overseas radio broadcasts.

In February 2013, Zhang’s 10-year-old daughter was taken out of school in Hefei one day by police without his knowledge. The school later rejected her on the ground of school jurisdiction. Netizens from around the country traveled to Hefei, demanding that the girl be allowed to resume school. Zhang Lin was accused of organizing these protests. In September 2014, Zhang was sentenced to three and half years in prison for “gathering a crowd to disrupt public order.”

Zhang is currently incarcerated in Tongling Prison (铜陵监狱) in Anhui Province. Zhang’s two daughters now live in the Untied States, thanks to the help of Ms. Reggie Littlejohn, the president of Women’s Rights without Frontiers.


Li Bifeng (李必丰)

Li Bifeng, front middle. Liao Yiwu, back right.

Li Bifeng (front center) and Liao Yiwu (back right) were among the June 4th political prisoners in Sichuan.

In 1989, the 25-year-old poet Li Bifeng was elected the president of the Chengdu Youth Autonomous Committee. He organized protests and mobilized local residents in Chengdu and Mianyang, cities in Sichuan province, to support the nation-wide democracy movement. He was subsequently sentenced to five years in prison for “counterrevolutionary propaganda and incitement.”

After being released in 1994, Li became a labor activist, advocating for workers’ rights. Li provided critical information about labor protests in the 1990s to foreign media and human rights organizations. In 1998, he was sentenced to seven years in prison on dubious charges of “fraud.”

In 2011, Li was arrested again because the authorities suspected him of financing the escape of his friend Liao Yiwu (廖亦武), a dissident writer and also a participant in the 1989 movement, who had fled to Germany months earlier. In 2012, Li was given a 12-year prison sentence for “contract fraud” which his lawyer and family believed was groundless. The sentence was later reduced to 10 years. Li is currently imprisoned at Chuanbei Prison (川北监狱) in Sichuan province.


Chen Yunfei (陈云飞)

The ad saluting Tiananmen Mothers that Chen Yunfei placed in 2007.

The ad saluting Tiananmen Mothers that Chen Yunfei placed in 2007.

Chen Yunfei was a junior at Beijing Agriculture University in 1989 and one of the students on hunger strike in Tiananmen Square. On May 18, he fainted and was taken to the hospital. On the night of June 3, when resting in his dormitory, Chen heard that the troops were marching into downtown Beijing. Chen and his friends went out, trying to block the troops’ movement. The riot police knocked him unconcious.

In the following two decades, Chen interviewed parents whose son or daughter were killed in the massacre, collected their information, and commemorated the June 4th anniversary every year. Chen has also campaigned tirelessly for human rights and environmental protection over the years, and has received constant harassment because of his activities.

On June 4, 2007, Chen placed an ad in the Chengdu Evening News (成都晚报) that read “Salute the brave mothers who lost their children on June 4th.” Two days later, he was detained for “inciting subversion of state power” and placed under house arrest for six months.

On March 25 this year, Chen was detained shortly after visiting the grave of a journalism student gunned down and bayoneted to death in the morning of June 4th. In April, he was formally arrested for “inciting subversion of state power” and “picking quarrels and provoking trouble.”

Chen is currently detained at Xinjin County Detention Center (新津县看守所) and denied of lawyer visit.


Yu Shiwen (于世文)

Yu Shiwen and his wife.

Yu Shiwen and his wife.

In 1989, Yu Shiwen was a junior majoring in philosophy at Sun Yat-sen University in the southern city of Guangzhou and active in student affairs. After the democracy protests broke out, Yu was elected the president of the Autonomous Student Union of the university. He led student marches on streets, and staged a hunger strike in solidarity with students in Beijing. After the crackdown, Yu helped Beijing students who had escaped to Guangzhou. For this, Yu was detained for 18 months.

In the two decades that followed, Yu and his wife, who was also a student leader in 1989 at the same university, made a fortune from stock trading, but they had never forgotten 1989. They organized and hosted commemoration events over the years. In February 2, 2014, they organized a visit to the birthplace of Zhao Ziyang, the deposed Communist Party leader. Three months later, Yu and his wife, along with 10 others, were arrested.  While all the others were eventually released, Yu Shiwen was indicted on April 23rd for “picking quarrels and creating trouble.” He is currently detained at Zhengzhou No.3 Detention Center (郑州第三看守所).

Yu wrote from the detention center, “I feel at ease, and honored. I’m finally making a real contribution to the memories of June 4.”


Pu Zhiqiang (浦志强)

Pu Zhiqiang in 1989.

Pu Zhiqiang in 1989.

Pu Zhiqiang was a graduate student in law at China University of Political Science and Law in 1989. He too was among the students on hunger strike in Tiananmen Square and remained there until the last moment. “On June 3, 1989, while in the Square,” Pu said years later, “I made a promise: ‘if I get out of here alive, I will revisit Tiananmen on this day every year.’” And he did.

In the years followed, Pu became one of the most prominent civil rights lawyers in China. He was the defense lawyer of, among many others, artist Ai Weiwei and dissident writer Tan Zuoren (谭作人) who was jailed for five years for investigating the collapse of school buildings during the 2008 Sichuan Earthquake.

Pu played a key role in ending the notorious “reeducation through labor” in China in 2012.

In May 2014, Pu was detained after attending a small gathering to commemorate the Tiananmen movement. On May 15, 2015, the Beijing Municipal People’s Procuratorate indicted Pu for “inciting ethnic hatred” and “picking quarrels and provoking trouble” and the evidence cited is a series of tweet-like comments he made online that criticized the Chinese government’s policies in Xinjiang and made fun of the Party propaganda.

Pu is currently held at Beijing No.1 Detention Center (北京第一看守所). He suffers from diabetes, high blood pressure and coronary heart disease and has been subjected to inhumane interrogations.


Gao Yu (高瑜)

1989 GaoyuIn 1989, Gao Yu was 45 years old and the deputy editor of the Beijing-based magazine Economic Weekly. After learning that the government might use force against the students, Gao went to the Square to talk to the student leaders in an effort to persuade them to leave. In the morning of June 3rd, Gao was taken away by plain-clothes policemen as she left her home. She was secretly jailed for 15 months in Qincheng Prison.

Not too long after she was released, in 1993, Gao was arrested again and sentenced to seven years in prison for “leaking state secrets,” after she wrote articles about elite Chinese politics for a Hong Kong publication.

She was released on medical parole in 1999. Gao Yu continued to report news and write commentaries critical of the Communist leadership. She has since won numerous international awards for her courage and her contribution to the freedom of speech.

In April 2014, Beijing detained Gao again, also on charges of “leaking state secrets.”  This time, the alleged secret was a Chinese Communist Party document known as the “Document No. 9,” which orders suppression of the ideas of constitutional democracy, rule of law, civil society, freedom press and other universal values. In April, a Beijing court sentenced the 71-year-old Gao Yu to seven years in prison.


Xu Zhiqiang, or Monk Shengguan (徐志强/圣观法师)

Monk Shengguan and His Holiness Dalai Lama in India.

Monk Shengguan and His Holiness Dalai Lama in India.

In 1989, Xu Zhiqiang was an engineer at a state-owned enterprise in Xi’an. He became a leader of the pro-democracy protests and a co-founder of the Xi’an Democracy Advancement Federation (西安促进民主联合会). Xu was arrested and jailed for a year.

In 2001, Xu became a Buddhist monk with the title Shengguan. In 2006, for performing Buddhist rituals to commemorate victims of the Tiananmen Massacre and promoting transparency in the temple in Jiangxi Province where he resided, Xu was evicted from the temple by police. In 2009, after Xu organized an event to pay tribute to Hu Yaobang, the liberal-minded Communist leader whose death triggered the 1989 movement, Xu was dismissed from the leadership of Honglian Tempe in Hunan Province.

In 2011, Xu met with His Holiness Dalai Lama in India.

In May 2014, three days after Xu had hosted a small seminar in Wuhan to commemorate the 25th anniversary of the Tiananmen Massacre, he was detained and charged with “picking quarrels and provoking trouble.” Xu was tried in April for “inciting subversion of state power,” but the court has yet to hand down a sentence. Xu is currently held at Wuhan No. 2 Detention Center (武汉市第二看守所) in Hubei province.


Zhu Yufu (朱虞夫)

Zhu Yufu

Zhu Yufu

In 1989, Zhu Yufu was an official at the Bureau of Housing Management in Hangzhou, the capital of coastal Zhejiang Province. He was detained for 27 days after taking part in in protests and lost his job.

Zhu was a co-founder of the outlawed opposition group, China Democracy Party, in the 1990s, and in 1999, he was sentenced seven years in prison for “inciting subversion of state power.”

After his release in 2006, Zhu spoke out against the torture he had endured in prison and continued to promote democracy. A year later, he was detained again for pushing a police officer who was harassing his teenage son. He was sentenced to two years in prison for “disrupting public service (妨碍公务罪).” His son was jailed for 18 months too.

In 2011, Zhu was arrested during the crackdown of the “Jasmine Revolution,” a series of public assemblies that took place in over a dozen cities after an anonymous tweet called for peaceful protests in China. In February 2012, Zhu was sentenced to seven years in prison for “inciting subversion of state power,” and his “crime” was a poem titled “It’s Time” that he had disseminated:

It’s time, Chinese!

The time is now.

The square belongs to all, and your feet belong to you,

It’s time to walk to the square to make a choice.


Zhu is currently imprisoned at Zhejiang No. 4 Prison (浙江第四监狱) in Hangzhou.  Zhu suffers from poor health, and his application for medical parole has been denied repeatedly.


Chen Shuqing ( 陈树庆)

Chen Shuqing (front) and his friends from the China Democracy Party in 2010 when he was released from prison.

Chen Shuqing (front) and his friends from the China Democracy Party in 2010 when he was released from prison.

In 1989, Chen Shuqing was a 24-year-old graduate student at Hangzhou University (now Zhejiang University) and took part in the democracy movement.

Chen has since become an activist. In 1999, he was detained for four months for co-founding the China Democracy Party. After being released, he continued to organize activities on behalf of the Party, enduring harassment from the authorities.

In 2006, Chen was arrested in connection with his online expressions and the activities of the China Democracy Party. He served a four-year sentence.

In September 2014, Chen was criminally detained again on charges of “inciting subversion of state power.” Chen has been held at the Hangzhou Detention Center (杭州市看守所). His trial, scheduled for May, has been postponed.


Zhou Yongjun (周勇军)

1989 周勇军There is a famous photo of 1989 in which three students knelt on the steps of the Great Hall of the People, entreating an audience with the Chinese leaders. Zhou Yongjun, on the right, was a student at the China University of Political Science and Law and the president of the Autonomous Student Union of Beijing Universities, a student group formed during the protests.

Zhou was imprisoned for two years afterwards. He came to the U.S. in 1993. In 1998, he was arrested and sentenced to three years of “reeducation through labor” when he attempted to re-enter China to visit his parents.

Zhou came to the U.S. again in 2002. In 2008, after being repeatedly denied of visa to return to China, Zhou made a second attempt to re-enter mainland China. He was arrested in Hong Kong for using a fake passport. Seven months later, the Hong Kong authorities handed Zhou to the Chinese government.

In January 2010, Zhou was sentenced to nine years in prison by a court in Sichuan on undisclosed charges of financial fraud. Zhou is currently held in Chongzhou Prison (崇州监狱) in Sichuan. In August 2014, it was reported that Zhou suffered from serious liver failure and partial blindness. For a while it was feared that he might die in prison. There has been no more reports about his conditions since.


Yaqiu Wang (王亚秋) researches and writes about civil society and human rights in China.



Always Parting: My Life with Liu Xianbin, by Chen Mingxian, 2010.

Democracy Is My Love Affair – the Story of Zhao Changqing, by Gu Chuan, January 12, 2014.

Tamer of Beasts, Tamer of Despots, by Liao Yiwu, May 24, 2015.

Tackling a Wall of Lies – a Profile of Pu Zhiqiang, by  Albertine Ren, September 14, 2014.

Xi Jinping the Man, by Gao Yu, January 26, 2013.


Always Parting: My Life with Liu Xianbin

—- Dedicated to Wives of Dissidents

By Chen Mingxian, published: March 29, 2015


Chen Mingxian in 2013, volunteer to help children in the mountains.

Chen Mingxian in 2013, volunteer to help children in the mountains.

Editor’s note: Among Chinese dissidents and activists, this essay by Chen Mingxian (陈明先), a high school Chinese teacher in Suining, Sichuan (四川遂宁) and wife of Liu Xianbin (刘贤斌), has become a classic. Since reading it a couple of years ago, I have kept remembering it, and some of the imageries seem to have preeminently lodged in my mind. Few writings do that to you. Last fall, I finally had it translated but have not had a chance to edit it for posting until now. For some time, I have also wanted to interview a group of wives of Chinese political prisoners, but that desire has kept being pushed back because there is always something more urgent to do. Such is the lot of this community of extraordinary women: quietly they shoulder the emotional and material toll exacted on them by the absence of their husbands, caring for the old and raising the young, but they are no priority on anyone’s agenda. Liu Xianbin was a student in Renmin University (中国人民大学) in 1989, his participation in the Tiananmen Movement landed him in Qincheng Prison where he served 2 and half years.  He was again sentenced to 13 years in prison in 1999 for “subverting the state power” and released in November, 2008, on reduced prison term. In June, 2010, he was arrested again and, in March, 2011, he was sentenced to 10 years in jail for “inciting subversion of state power.” The article was written shortly after Liu Xianbin was arrested in June, 2010. 



Several years ago when Xianbin was still serving his sentence at Sichuan Province’s No. 3 prison (in Dazhu county), Ouyang Yi (欧阳懿), a friend who had been campaigning tirelessly on Xianbin’s behalf, was constantly admonishing me to write something about the two of us. I thought there was nothing much to write. My meeting Xianbin was uncomplicated, not nearly as romantic as one might imagine. In November of 1993, I was teaching at Suining High School (遂宁中学), and Xianbin had just been released from Qincheng Prison (秦城监狱) in Beijing and was helping to watch his sister-in-law’s storefront. I would often go over to chat with his sister-in-law, and this is how Xianbin and I came to know each other.

And what did we talk about? I can no longer recollect. Although we both bore witness to the events of 1989, I was still full of curiosity about his experience that year. He was a man who had emerged from such suffering with energy and optimism intact. What more could he not endure? I thought. I felt so warmly toward him. He was unemployed and his household registration was with a village on the outskirts of the city, but at the time I was already coming to see that work unit and household registration were going to be largely irrelevant in the future. As long as he could support himself, I felt that I could support myself and our children.

Liu Xianbin and Chen Mingxian in May 1994.

Liu Xianbin and Chen Mingxian in May 1994.

Xianbin and I began dating in March of 1994. He had already left Suining by then, and he was shuttling between Suining and Chengdu peddling a kind of drink called Mango Tea. I have never cared very much about money, but seeing his unflagging hustle did please me.

In about May, Xianbin said that he would go to Beijing. Before his departure, we took a long stroll through Suining’s old, shabby streets. Xianbin feared that I would be lonely and suggested purchasing a black and white television, but I refused. He then suggested buying me a gold necklace, and again I was unwilling. Then we thought of going to sit for a photograph as a memento. We inquired at a number of photo parlors, but no one was willing to accommodate us. In the end, Xianbin and I spent an extravagant thirty-five yuans [about $4-$5 at the time] on a set of four black and white wedding portraits.

During the summer vacation my older brother’s family went to Beijing for sightseeing, bringing with him my letter and some clothing for Xianbin. They returned with a letter from Xianbin and a “Time Flows Swiftly as Water” cassette tape. In his letter he wrote how he sat alone in the park in dusk and how the distant strains of a piano reduced him to homesickness and tears.

On the 13th of September, we registered our marriage. Because Xianbin was in a rush to leave again, we didn’t have time to take a formal photograph and so we glued one of the black and white wedding portraits onto our marriage certificate. Xianbin took one with him to Beijing, and I kept the other three with me in Suining. Perhaps the separation was too painful to bear, Xianbin also had some plans for me to go to Beijing to look for job, but nothing came of them.

At the urging of Xianbin’s mother, we held a simple wedding ceremony on January 28, 1995. Xianbin’s dramatic turn from a student at Renmin University (人民大学) to convicted prisoner had been difficult for his mother to bear, and at last here was an occasion at which she could hold her head high. She said that throughout the wedding she had felt like singing. My own poor mother wept. She had learned Xianbin’s entire story only the night before the wedding. She had asked, helplessly, “how much farm land does Liu Xianbin own?”


I became Xianbin’s bride in a small room at the west end, neighboring the boy’s dormitory, on the ground floor of Jiguang Hall (继光楼) at Suining High School. Our new home was very simple: a portrait of us, twenty-four inch black and white, hung on the wall, and light filtered through the grids of green plastic glued to the expanse of window. Looking out from the window, one could see in the yard a big banyan tree, a small pavilion capped with green tiles, and an ancient bell. The bell had long since been abandoned and almost never rung before. The first morning after our wedding, Xianbin went outside with a hammer to ring the bell, like a child. With school out of session, the campus was quiet, and the simple, wholesome notes of the bell rang out long and travelled far.

Xianbin has mentioned this particular time many times in different settings. I think this must be because that small room and the ringing of the bell were among his loveliest memories; they came to stand for the rare moments in our lives where we have been free of care.

The bell in Suining High School.

The bell in Suining High School.

On the evening of the fourth day of the first lunar month, we returned from a gathering of Xianbin’s former classmates to find the door our small room ajar. All the things in the room were neatly and intact, but one of the two cameras resting on the writing desk had vanished. Xianbin believed that the curious restraint of our burglar could be accounted for with only one explanation: that the object of the theft had been the film rather than any valuables. And so our friend Chen Bin [Chen Wei’s younger brother] lost his camera, and we lost all the photographic record we had of our wedding.

Xianbin had already a sense of foreboding, but it made no effect on his mood. Although I was regretful, we were bereft of any recourse. Yet whenever the photographs were mentioned, I would wistfully imagine that they still lay in some safe corner and that they would return to us one day in the future.

I can’t remember how long Xianbin stayed with me after the wedding. He was always hurrying away and then suddenly returning. When he was gone, my heart would sink into some chasm where there would never be any word of him and my anxiety could find no accommodation. Perhaps our days together were too few in number, so that seeing him return suddenly, even after many years of marriage, would fill me with heart-fluttering shyness.

In the summer of 1995, Xianbin took me to Baoshi Middle School to see his good friend Ouyang Yi. At that time, Ouyang Yi was already a father. Teacher Luo, Ouyang’s wife, and I stayed at home to watch the toddler while Ouyang Yi took Xianbin to the homes of some local villagers to conduct surveys. After returning, Xianbin was full of excitement and wrote for several days.

When the police raided our home for the first time, we had already moved to the third floor on the east end of Jiguang Hall. It was a three-room, wood-lined apartment with a balcony and a simple kitchen and toilet. Though plainly furnished, it was our sweet home and it was there that Xianbin learned to cook.

In March and April of 1996, Xianbin’s sojourns were no longer so unrestricted. News of his returning would reach the police very quickly, and then he would be taken away for questioning. The questioning was often aggressive and threatening. Xianbin did not want to tangle with them and would later avoid coming back to Suining altogether.

Our reunions became ever more difficult. One morning in May, Xianbin’s mother came over telling me that Xianbin had returned, staying in her rental room on Small East Street. I rushed over and, furtively, I entered his mother’s room to see Xianbin sitting on an old bench paring a peach as he waited for me.

Liu Xianbin

Liu Xianbin

That afternoon, Xianbin took me to the park beside Suining First High School for a stroll. The park, sparsely visited, was safer than our home. We sat on a bench holding each other closely until dusk. For dinner, we ate “Feng Dumplings,” and then Xianbin took me to the bank of the Fu River (涪江). The riverbank was strung with garbage and rubble then, and few people would go there to walk about. We held hands as we walked back and forth under the weak lamp light. Xianbin decided to go into the city only after we had exhausted ourselves staying out late into the night. Having crossed many streets and alleys, we finally found, and checked into, a small guesthouse that did not require us to register for the night.

The police had not seen Xianbin for some time, and they must be very anxious. In early June, I received a telegram with news that my father was critically ill, so I hurried to my hometown in Renshou (仁寿). On the road, I noticed that there was a neatly dressed man who had been following me throughout my journey. He followed me from one bus transfer to another, and he would take out a dark object (it may have been a mobile phone) and huddle in a corner communicating something to someone. My intuition told me that they were looking for Xianbin. I later had proof from my sister-in-law, who not long after asked me: “Is there something wrong with Xianbin? Why did the police come here looking for you?”

Xianbin returned home upon the start of the America’s Cup in 1996, a weary bird returning to roost. The security police sought him out immediately upon hearing of his return. Xianbin’s old homeroom teacher from high school, now the school’s vice principal, knocked on our door, accompanied by a large entourage of police officers. The meeting of the teacher and the student was more than a little strained and awkward. Soon Xianbin was taken by Wang Yanwen (王延文), the brutish head of the domestic security branch of the local public security bureau, while the others stayed behind to turn our home inside out.

The police ransacked my bed!

The police scattered my clothing!

The police opened my diary!

The police was reading what I had written!

They had unscrupulously violated my privacy. It was as if I was stripped of all my clothes and thrown on the street for the first time in my life. Never in my life had I felt so humiliated. My entire body shook with rage and nervousness. Hidden against my chest was an address book Xianbin had passed to me, and I feigned calm while pacing the balcony.

The next day, Xianbin returned safely, and by then I had burned six heavy volumes of diary recording fourteen years of girlish youth and dreams.


At the end of May of 1997, shortly before our child was born, Xianbin put his travels in abeyance and returned home to stay. Seeing my heavy belly and struggling steps, he was secretly worried. One day, I went out to take a stroll on the street and, stopping at his sister-in-law’s storefront, began chatting so happily I forgot about returning home. He didn’t know what had happened and became as anxious as an ant on a hot pan.

Happy Familly portrait.

Happy Familly portrait.

On the morning of June 13, our child was born by caesarian section, and Xianbin could not contain his happiness. Every day, he busied himself washing clothes, making meals and looking after the baby. But before our child was a month old, he told me, “I have to take a trip, I will have my mother come over to help you.”

Xianbin left me some money for living expenses and left, seemingly without a care in the world. I didn’t know where he had gone, nor did I need to know, it seemed. But when he return again that autumn, he had tuberculosis flare-up. He was constantly coughing blood and had to be admitted to the hospital. I shuttled back and forth between home, the market, and the hospital with our child and a very heavy heart.

Xianbin had been very strong and capable, but falling ill made him vulnerable like a child in need of love and attention. I did everything I could, borrowing from family and friends to pay for his medical expenses and nutrition. After some time, I was too ashamed of approaching others for money and so, in exchange for a pittance, I sold the gold ring that Xianbin’s mother had given me. I will always remember the ache in my heart the day I paid my discreet visit to the tiny gold shop, thinking, “My love, I have nothing else left to save you!”

That was the second time Xianbin had tuberculosis. His mother was overwhelmed with anxiety, thinking of every possible means and trying out every folk remedy to drive the disease away. After hearing that there was a kind of herbal bath for treating the illness, Xianbin’s mother carried a large steel wok from Renli village (仁里场) several kilometers away to heat the medicinal water at our home. She kept giving us money out of her own scant living allowance. And in such a manner we struggled through those days.

The police also came to the hospital to see Xianbin, although I didn’t know whether they were visiting for other reasons. By the spring of 1998, Xianbin’s illness was in remission and he was well enough to recover at home. In April, we moved to a house near the school’s main gate. The house was in disrepair, but it was spacious enough to accommodate three rooms. This way, Xianbin’s father was able to live with us, looking after us for up to twelve years.

At that time, Xianbin’s father was 70 years old. He was still nimble, pushing our child everywhere in a bamboo stroller with Xianbin accompanying them. They would often take our child to the Northern Sichuan College of Education. The campus had a large garden with flowers in bloom year-round. When I was done teaching, I would often run over to look for them under the bobbing branches of the sweet-smelling tea olive tree where we gathered as a family. Having been there many times, those glorious golden tea olive blossoms, the tamarisk and the wisteria, fixed themselves in our hearts. After being released from jail, Xianbin more than once mentioned to our daughter that he had taken her to see the blossoms and birds call, but how could a thirteen-year-old girl recollect these tender memories of being with her father when she was too little to remember?

Xianbin’s health had not fully recovered, but he was nonetheless restless. As soon as the summer had passed, he traveled to Chengdu. Not long afterward, he had taken his bedsheets, his comforter, and other basic articles with him, as if he were planning to stay indefinitely. Our daughter was so young and in need of love, I redoubled my efforts trying to make up for the absence of her father’s affection and to ensure a happy childhood for her.

In December, Xianbin returned jubilant, bringing with him a fax machine. The fax machine needed to be connected to a phone before it could be used. And so we came to have a telephone installed in our home with the number 0825-2248222.

Xianbin could hardly contain his enthusiasm for the fax machine and stayed at home busying himself with it all day long. Meanwhile, the atmosphere around us became even more tense than usual: Officer Wang became ever more short-tempered, the searches of our home became more and more frequent, the duration of each police summon stretched longer and longer, often detaining Xianbin for 48 hours.

Later, a police car was parked outside our building day and night, and we could hear its noise from the third floor. With his movements monitored, Xianbin stayed at home without any way of printing out the essays he had written to transmit through the fax machine.

One day, I went out to buy groceries. Xianbin gave a draft of an article to me and I found a small shop and printed it, taking it home in the cloth bag I used for groceries. As Xianbin’s writing continued to be disseminated, the security police became suspicious and began to follow me. They confiscated the printing and copying machines belonging to the owner of the small print shop. I was taken to the public security bureau where I was interrogated for the first time.

Xianbin was infuriated by the constant harassment from the police and took our daughter with him to the Suining Public Security Bureau to protest. On December 19, at the Bureau’s main entrance, Xianbin refused to be interrogated, a flustered and frustrated Wang Yanwen (王延文) ordered several police officers to drag him away, tearing sleeves of his shirt. By January of 1999, the atmosphere seemed to have eased some and so Xianbin left Suining once more.

At the start of the winter vacation, Xianbin’s father returned to their hometown of Renli and busied himself in preparations for the Chinese New Year. My daughter and I had just each other for company, and we looked forward to Xianbin’s return. Although we had installed a phone in the house, Xianbin was very cautious and it had yet to ring for his wife and daughter. Two days before the New Year’s Day, Ouyang Yi told me that something had happened to Xianbin and he was being held at a detention center in Beijing. My heart, uneasy for days on end, finally sank.

My daughter and I rang in a desolate New Year’s Day in 1999. But I did not know then that that day’s void was just cracking open and that it would remain agape until 2008.


On June 13, 1999, when our daughter turned two, we had taken a family portrait. This is the only photograph of all three of us together that we have had. A few days later on the 20th, after our dry-daughter’s birthday dinner, Xianbin took another photograph with her in his arms. Who would have thought that this would be the only proof that he had ever held her close in his arms?

On July 7, the police burst through our front door and threw our simple home into disarray. Our daughter was still young and so was not very frightened. As he was being taken away, Xianbin held her tightly, just as he used to hold me each time before he left, as if we were parting forever (He was always saying goodbye, each time it felt to me as if it was for the last time). On August 6, Xianbin was sentenced to 13 years in prison and 3 years of “deprivation of political rights” for “subverting state power.” On September 3, he was sent to the Sichuan Province Number Three Prison in Dazhu County.

Dazhu was a small town in the east of Sichuan. I had never been there before. But over the endless stretch of the next ten years, my daughter and I squeezed onto trains and buses and bounced over rough roads time and time again. The road was treacherous and the bus trip full of dangers, I would clutch my daughter close, as if we were hurrying to make an appointment with death.

To distract ourselves from anxiety, my daughter and I would gaze at the mountains, the trees, the white mist rising from the slopes. My unease would subside only after the bus passed the foot of the Nine Dragon Mountain (九龙山) with its thick covering of hemp vines. In that isolated mountain town, we stayed in cheap lodgings charging 8-yuan a night and ate the simplest meals, and the three of us — my daughter, Xianbin’s mother, and I – each depending on one another.

Liu Xianbin and Chen Wei went to Suining  High School together.

Liu Xianbin and Chen Wei went to Suining High School together.

My first impression of jail was formed in the summer of 1995. Our good friend Chen Wei [1] was transferred from Beijing to Sichuan’s No. 1 prison in Gaoping District of at Nanchong City (南充). Xianbin and I went to visit him. In a long room like a cafeteria, Xianbin and Chen Wei smoked and chatted while clasping hands across a long and white-tiled counter. From then, I thought that all Chinese prisons allowed inmates and their loved ones to hold hands and talk to one another.

But meeting with Xianbin was not so simple. Only after passing through two gates and completing a long series of procedures were we allowed to meet in a room, under the watchful eyes of wardens. I realized then how childish and naive it was to think that Xianbin and our daughter could celebrate the Chinese New Year together in prison while he was serving his sentence.

The meeting room was on the third floor, a small, rectangular space created by bulletproof glass. Every time, Xianbin would come to the glass room from the other end, his face wreathed in smiles, and sit before us. Although we were face to face, we couldn’t feel each other physically, and we had only a half hour to talk through the phone.

On one Chinese New Year, I took a few of our nephews to see their uncle. We got lucky that year, and were given unexpected permission to eat hot pot with him. Xianbin and I sat beside one another for a full hour, and yet, surprisingly, neither one of us dared to reach out and touch the other’s hand.

Another time, when our daughter was seven years old, she joyfully ran into the glass room and hugged Xianbin. She then turned to me and made a face, saying, “Mama, why don’t you give each other a hug too?” Xianbin and I hesitated on either side of the doorway, both casting a glance at the prison warden before stepping forward, husband and wife, for our only embrace in ten years.

Xianbin had always been very reserved, yet his letters were always filled with tenderness. He sent endless lessons, drawings, and stories for our child. But once I realized that he would not be the first to read my letters, my own words became lifeless and formulaic. I would report on everyone’s situation at home and reveal very little of my own feelings — I did not want to let the public security or prison officials revel in my sorrow. But sometimes I did write about my sadness. Yet Xianbin did not seem to register anything. When I told him later that I was always weeping when I wrote to him, he was deeply surprised.

Around 2001, Xianbin wrote to me saying that he had grown plump. I was worried about his condition (he had not fully recovered from his tuberculosis). When I suggested that he make sure that he wasn’t suffering from edema, I also mentioned the Great Famine of the fifties in passing. The next time I visited, the prison official presented my letter to me with an air of great self-importance, criticizing me for saying “a nation of swollen bodies?” in it. “You are a teacher,” he said, “How could you say this?” I stood my ground and began to quarrel with him loudly.

After 2005, my correspondence increasingly became limited to captions of photos. I began the habit of using pictures to communicate with Xianbin. I would send, for instance, a photo of a red dragonfly flitting around the outskirts of the city, our daughter’s flute recital, and family Spring Festival gatherings. I hoped that Xianbin would be able to access some feeling of nature and everyday life from these photographs and so draw closer to us in spirit.

Liu Xianbin drew pictures in jail for his daughter.

Liu Xianbin drew pictures in jail for his daughter.


After Xianbin began serving his sentence, I thought that our lives would become peaceful: He would no longer be drifting around indefinitely without enough clothing or food, and my daughter and I would no longer be constantly scared and traumatized, passing our time helplessly.

Xie Jun (谢军, Huang Xiaomin’s former wife) and Luo Bizhen (罗碧珍, Ouyang Yi’s wife and also a teacher) had told me about how terrified their children had been to witness the public security officers ransacking their homes and then taking away their fathers. I was glad that our daughter was only an infant and did not yet understand fear enough to be harmed by the memory. I savored the peace that fell after the tempest our family had been through, and in the midst of this tranquility even felt some happiness.

Xianbin’s friends would occasionally come to visit. When they left, they would leave behind articles they or others had written about Xianbin. In between the work of looking after our daughter and supporting the two of us, I wasn’t in the mood to appreciate these writings with careful attention.

But before and after June 4th every year, I would still be summoned and escorted, by an ill-tempered police officer named Zheng Dashuang (郑大双), to the school’s security office where I would be interrogated. Sometimes they were hostile and aggressive, other times wheedling. Perhaps it was my refusal to leave or denounce Xianbin that disappointed them. They would threaten to have me demoted to teach at a school in the countryside. But I was actually prepared to return home to farm, and so their threats held no force for me.

On the evening of May 28, 2001 (Xianbin had served nearly two years of his sentence by then), Zheng Dashuang arrived at my home with a large group of officers. They said that Xianbin had committed some illegal act while in prison, and that they needed to search our home to assist in the investigation. The police once again looked through every corner of our home, only uncovering the literary essays of Ouyang Yi and Huo Ge (火戈), and another letter written by Mr. Zhang whose first name I can no longer recall. As if they had seized upon something extremely valuable, they took me to the school’s administrative office and interrogated me until the small hours of the night.

Chen Mingxian and daughter Chen Qiao.

Chen Mingxian and daughter Chen Qiao.

Mr. Zhang was a Dutch national. As a young man he had been labeled a rightist. Out of sympathy, he had sent us one hundred U.S. dollars and forty Dutch guilders during the spring festival of 2000 as a new year present for our daughter. His letter was written in traditional characters, and his message extremely simple. But the police examined this letter for a long time, as if to unearth something from it. Seeing them treating a brief letter with such seriousness was actually quite amusing. But I had no desire to play audience to their particular brand of theater, and so I told them that I would return home because my daughter needed to be looked after. They took advantage of this weakness of mine, saying, “If you can’t explain yourself clearly you won’t be going home.” But I would never be able to explain things clearly to them! I refused to speak any more. Then they didn’t know what to do next. In the end, they drove me to a place north of the city and shut me away in a room.

The room was on the second floor of the building. There were a few metal-framed bunk beds, much like a student dormitory. It was empty and seemed as if no one had ever stayed in it. It was only by the light of the lamp outside that I saw that the bed in the center had a mattress. I crawled into it and fell asleep in my clothes.

The next morning, I woke to someone crying out “Time to eat!” and saw an elderly man pushing a bowl of rice porridge into the room through a small window. After eating breakfast I looked out through the window and could see the canopy of a large tree with glossy green leaves. The old man came back down the corridor twice, and, perhaps he thought I looked like a trustworthy person, he gave me a magazine to help me kill time.

At five in the afternoon, a plump woman opened the door. In her office, I filled out some personal information. Then, after asking if I had anything to add to the questions they had asked me the day before, she let me go.

Besides Xianbin’s father and my daughter, no one knew that I had been disappeared for twenty-four hours. When I contacted Chen Wei, he told me: “I was just released as well from the drug rehab!” It turned out that we had both been detained in the same place, only he had been held on the first floor. I asked him what he ate for lunch. “Potatoes!” he said. We both laughed uproariously.

Liu Xianbin's daughter Chen Qiao in San Francisco in 2013. California-based Humanitarian China helped Chen Qiao to study in the US. She's high school senior now.

Liu Xianbin’s daughter Chen Qiao in San Francisco in 2013. California-based Humanitarian China helped Chen Qiao to study in the US. She’s high school senior now.


At the end of 1999, the local public security bureau took out a large billboard on the plaza outside the Northern Sichuan College of Education celebrating their achievements. I heard they included a photograph of Xianbin at his trial. I didn’t go to see.

Word of my husband’s prison sentence slowly spread to the public. My daughter and I became the objects of pity, and I also became a figure that some avoided. At that time, associating with someone with a background like mine was dangerous if you were seeking to advance professionally or financially.

I broke off nearly all contact with my closest friends and relatives in my hometown so that their lives would remain undisturbed. My mother learned of Xianbin’s arrest and incarceration only in 2005 after Xianbin had been in prison for six years.

When Chen Wei was sentenced, his mother’s hair turned white overnight. For fear of subjecting my mother to the same distress, I took her to the garden of the Northern Sichuan College of Education and first gave her the news of Xianbin’s receiving a human rights award and the prize money he had won. Then I told her the actual circumstances of his incarceration and how my situation now were actually quite good. My mother was relieved. Although she was illiterate, she seemed to have understood everything. She looked untouched by age, peaceful and sage. It made me feel that perhaps all my anxiety over the previous years had been completely groundless.

Nonetheless, for many days, my mother hid in the kitchen, weeping. My daughter was not yet eight years old, but she had learned to comfort others. She said, “Grandma, don’t cry. Daddy teaches in the prison, he is doing very well!”

Although my daughter and I would only very rarely receive attention of my family in my hometown, we were still very lucky. On June 1st of 2000, Children’s Day, a retired teacher, also a “rightist” in the 1950s, discreetly came to our front door to give my three-year-old daughter a bag of plums and Wahaha, the sweet yogurt drink. Two of my friends, husband and wife, would often bring their child to our home to play with my daughter. For years they treated us like extended family. A doctor at a clinic on Yanshi Street (盐市街) was so sympathetic to me and my daughter that, every time we visited, she was always very attentive and then would ask for very little or no money. Chen Wei’s mother took her pension out of the stock market and insisted on lending us money to buy the apartment in Baisheng Courtyard. And elderly Mr. Deng Huanwu (邓焕武) came many times all the way from Chongqing to visit us and lent me the money to decorate the interior of the apartment so that we were able to settle into our new home in September of 2002. Although Xianbin could not be with us, our life in Baisheng Courtyard was very simple and happy.

On the day Liu Xianbin was released in November, 2010.

On the day Liu Xianbin was released in November, 2009. From left to right: Ouyang Yi, Chen Wei, Liu Xianbin, and Zhang Ming. All four were 1989ers, all four have been in prison, and their total prison terms add up to 53 years!

On June 25, 2002, the domestic security police summoned me once again, but in the six years following, it seemed as if the public security officers had forgotten about my existence (although I learned later that they had had me on their radar all the time). They only called me to the school’s administrative office twice. Once, a police officer from Chongqing came to investigate whether Xiao Xuehui (肖雪慧) had brought me American currency. The second time, the Suining police required me not to leave Suining while the Olympics were being held in China. I worked quietly, saving money and running our household; our daughter was healthy and doing really well in school.

On December 5, 2002, Ouyang Yi was taken away by the Chengdu police and was later sentenced to two years in prison for inciting subversion of the state power. His wife, teacher Luo Bingzhen, was heartbroken, and I did not know how to comfort her. In today’s China, all dissidents’ wives are likely to face the same fate. I didn’t know how our tears and sorrow could alter anything.

Compared to the interminable length of Xianbin’s sentence, Ouyang’s two years seemed fleeting. On the afternoon of December 4, 2004, the prison officers escorted Ouyang back to Suining, his hometown while Teacher Luo traveled to Chengdu to greet him. They missed each other. The local police officers had to bring him back into town. At the bridgehead of Heping Road (和平路), Ouyang’s former classmate Kong Jie (孔杰) and I finally met him.

Two years in prison left marks on Ouyang. As his slim body made its way toward us, I was startled to see what Xianbin would look like, in years later, with all the helplessness and desolation in and around him.

In my dreams, Xianbin returned to me in many different ways. In the earlier versions, I would dream of visiting him in prison and helping him to escape. In later dreams, he would come back, smiling, with his bag slung over his shoulder looking bedraggled. Still later, I would dream of hearing news that he was getting an early release but then I wouldn’t be able to find a trace of him. I think my dreams, over the years, had gone from hope to despair, and, in the end, there was neither but a certain elusiveness.

In September of 2008, Xianbin wrote to me telling me the exact date by which he would have finished serving his sentence. But I didn’t experience much joy as one might have imagined. For me and for him, freedom seems such an extravagance. Xianbin had spent ten years apart from me, how much time would we need to close the distance between us? I couldn’t bear to see him being helpless and lonely; could he bear to see me as hardened as alkaline soil?

I remember reading a passage about the wife of a Russian dissident. It says that her face could no longer register joy or sorrow. I think I too will eventually become like her, aged, numb, and expressionless, because it was only for one year, seven months, and twenty-two days from November 6, 2008 to June 28, 2010, that Xianbin and I were reunited. Now he’s gone again, we are once again on the interminable journey of walking toward one other.


Afterword: For reasons of length, I am unable to describe in this essay all the care and help I have received. All that I have lived through over the past 15 years is also the past, present, or future experience of the wives of other dissidents. And so I sincerely dedicate this piece to those women who were, are, or will be the wives of dissidents.

Baisheng Courtyard, July 14 – August 10, 2010.


[1] Chen Wei (陈卫), Liu Xianbin’s high school classmate, entered Beijing Industrial College (北京工业学院, now Beijing Institute of Technology) to study physics in 1988. In 1989, he witnessed June 4th movement as a student leader. He was subsequently arrested and sentenced for a year and a half and expelled from college. In 1992 he was sentenced to five years in prison for organizing the Chinese Freedom and Democracy Party (中国自民党). Between 1997 and 2011, he participated in organizing the Sichuan Democratic Party (四川民主党), signed 08 Charter, and was an important coordinator of non-violent rights activism. He was charged with “inciting to subvert state power” in March, 2011.  In December 23 of the same year, he was sentenced to nine years in prison. Among the evidence presented by prosecutors were four articles he authored – “Constitutional Democracy as Medicine for a Diseased System,” “Growth of an Opposition Key to China’s Democracy,” “The Trap of ‘Harmony’ and the Absence of Justice,” and “Thoughts during My Human Rights Day Fast.” 



Chen Wei’s wife waits for his return, July, 2012.


(Translated by Sophie J.)

Chinese original

Prominent 1989ers Voice Support for Yu Shiwen, Detained for Commemorating the Tiananmen Movement

By China Change, published: January 12, 2015


Shortly before June 4th, 2014, ten in Zhengzhou, capital of Henan province, were arrested for holding a public memorial for Zhao Ziyang (赵紫阳). Seven of them have since been released, and three have remained in custody for over six months now without an indictment. The 47-year-old Yu Shiwen, who organized the memorial along with his wife Chen Wei, suffered a stroke. Recently, the public security once again urged indictment for the three. Yu’s case has drawn attention from participants, inside and outside China, of the Tian’anmen democracy movement 25 years ago.

于世文陈卫在加州On February 2nd, 2014, Yu Shiwen, Chen Wei, and a group of Henan-based citizens held a memorial in Hua County, Henan provicnce (河南滑县), to remember Zhao Ziyang, Hu Yaobang and those who died during the June 4th massacre in 1989. After the memorial, Yu Shiwen sent photos to overseas Chinese websites and was interviewed by Radio Free Asia. But they were not arrested until shortly before the June 4th anniversary on charges of “picking quarrels and creating disturbances,” likely a result of Chinese authorities’ nervousness leading up to the anniversary.

In poor health, Yu Shiwen has been shuttled several times between the detention center and a hospital. The public security twice recommended indictment but were asked to provide more evidence. Last December, the public security once again sent Yu Shiwen’s case to the prosecutors for indictment.

Lawyers of the three recently issued statements against possible indictment. Yu Shiwen’s lawyer Ma Lianshun argued that there is nothing against the law about remembering Hu Yaobang, Zhao Ziyang and the June 4th dead, and what Yu and his friends did in no way “created disturbances.” Lawyer Ma further argued that the Chinese Communist Party should redress the Tiananmen Democracy Movement, recognizing its legitimacy and historical significance. Should Yu Shiwen be tried, Ma said, he would have to defend his client by introducing a plethora of witness accounts relating to the June 4th crackdown, its origin, development and tragic ending.

Participants in the public memorial took a group photo in front of Zhao Ziyang's birth place.

Participants in the public memorial took a group photo in front of Zhao Ziyang’s birth place.

Yu Shiwen and Chen Wei were students at Sun Yat-sen University in Guangzhou in 1989. They became student leaders during the democracy movement that took the country by storm that spring. They each served prison time afterwards. In the two decades that followed, the couple lived mostly in Zhengzhou where they tried their hand in business and made a considerable fortune in stock trading.

Zhou Fengsuo, another 1989 student leader who lives in California now, told Radio Free Asia that, “as a member of the 1989 generation, I have a lot of respect for Yu Shiwen for keeping alive his idealism after 25 years. I personally feel compelled to stand side by side with them in his current plight, and I also call on other 1989ers to pay attention to his case.”

Braving the cold, on January 6, Yu Shiwen’s 85-year-old mother and older sister, the wife of Dong Guangping, and the mother of Hou Shuai demonstrated in front of Guancheng District Prosecurorate, holding banners that read, “It’s not a crime to remember the dead,” “Return to your loved ones.”

Family members, including Yu Shiwen's mother, demanded release of their loved ones.

Family members, including Yu Shiwen’s mother, demanded release of their loved ones. Click to enlarge.

“Among our ranks of the 1989ers, many have had success in business and made money,” said Zhou Fengsuo. “In private, many are candid about their assessment of the democracy movement of our youth, but few are as courageous as Yu Shiwen and Chen Wei to make a public statement. Such is the burden imposed on our conscience by the CCP tyranny. When we choose silence, we are giving tyranny a free rein.”

Fang Zheng, another 1989er who lost both legs in the morning of June 4th to charging tanks, initiated a signature campaign calling upon 1989ers, whether they are overseas or inside China, to provide testimonies on the truth of the Tiananmen Massacre, should Yu Shiwen and the two others be tried.

“I don’t know what CCP is thinking to detain Yu Shiwen and the two others, and possibly try them, for commemorating June 4th after 25 years. As witnesses, it’s imperative that we step out to testify the facts of that time in front of the CCP prosecutors…. We will make our voices heard,” said Zhou Fengsuo.