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October 25, 2017
Yaxue Cao sat down with Wang Dan (王丹) on September 27 and talked about his past 28 years since 1989: the 1990s, Harvard, teaching in Taiwan, China’s younger generation, his idea for a think tank, his books, assessment of current China, Liu Xiaobo, and the New School for Democracy. –– The Editors
YC: Wang Dan, sitting down to do an interview with you I’m feeling nostalgic, because as soon as I close my eyes the name Wang Dan brings back the image of that skinny college student with large glasses holding a megaphone in a sea of protesters on Tiananmen Square. That was 1989. Now you have turned 50. So having this interview with you outside a cafe in Washington, D.C., in the din of traffic, I feel is a bit like traversing history. You recently moved to the Washington, D.C. area. I suspect many of our readers are like me –– the Wang Dan they know is still that student on the Square. Perhaps I can first ask you to talk a bit about where you’ve been and what you’ve been up to since 1989?
Wang Dan: When you speak like that, I feel that I have become a political terracotta warrior in other people’s eyes; when they look at me, they see only history. For me, 1989 is indeed a label I can’t undo. I’m conflicted about this label. On the one hand, I feel that I can’t rest on history. I don’t want people to see me and think of 1989 only, because if that were the case, it would seem that my 50 years has been lived doing nothing else. On the other hand, I am also willing to bear this label, and the sense of responsibility that comes with it. As a witness, survivor, and one of the organizers, this is a responsibility I cannot shirk. Everyone lives bearing many contradictions; this is my conflict, and all I can do is carry it.
After 1989, my life experience has been pretty straightforward. From 1989 to 1998, for a period of almost 10 years, I basically was in prison. From 1989 to 1993, I was in Qincheng Prison (秦城監獄) and Beijing No. 2 Prison (北京第二監獄); I was released in 1993. Then I was detained for the second time in 1995 on the charge of “conspiring to subvert the government.” During the period from 1993 to 1995, I was in Beijing starting to get in touch with friends who had participated in the student movement, and I also traveled all over the country. Deng Xiaoping went on a “Southern Tour,” I also took a southern tour. I started to assemble some of the June 4 student protesters. We issued some open letters, and started a fund to support political prisoners. We found more than 100 people to contribute, each person contributed ¥10-20 each month. The government said our activities were that of a counter-revolutionary group. This criminal charge was the same as Liu Xiaobo’s –– inciting subversion: writing essays, accepting interviews, criticizing the government. Because of these activities, I was detained again in 1995, but in 1998 I was sent into exile to the United States. Although I was out of prison for more than two years from 1993 to 1995, I had absolutely no freedom. Wherever I went, there were agents following me. The big prison.
YC: When you were released from prison in 1998, you hadn’t finished serving your sentence, right?
Wang Dan: I was sentenced to 11 years in prison, but I only stayed in prison for 3 years. I was released on medical parole as a result of international pressure.
YC: At the time China needed acceptance from the international community, and it wanted to join the World Trade Organization. Now this kind of international pressure is impossible.
Wang Dan: After I came to the U.S. in 1998, in my second month here, I entered Harvard University. First, I attended summer school for a month, and then took preparatory classes for a year. I then studied for my Master’s degree and Ph.D. I graduated from Harvard in 2008. This was another 10 years, and this 10-year period was for the most part study. Of course, I also engaged in some democracy movement activities in my spare time. After graduating from Harvard, I went to England where I lived for a time, and then in 2009 I went to Taiwan to teach, which is where I have been living until this year, 2017. That’s eight years. So in the 28 years since 1989, I have either been in prison, studying, or teaching. During this whole time, regardless of what I was doing, I remained engaged in opposition activities.
YC: You were a history student at Peking University, and you studied history at Harvard. What would you most like to share about your 10 years at Harvard?
Wang Dan: Harvard has had a great impact on my life. I think with respect to China’s future, I have political aspirations, or a political ideal. I believe that China’s political future requires people who have specialized knowledge. So I feel a strong sense of accomplishment about getting my degree from Harvard. I achieved a goal I had set for myself. I think it is necessary preparation for my political future. This is the first point.
Second, at Harvard I was able to broaden my horizons. It gave me an international perspective. But obviously the most important thing, I believe, is my third point: the ten years at Harvard enabled me to just be an ordinary person. The students around me didn’t know who I was, only the Chinese students knew, but at that time there weren’t that many Chinese students. I was completely anonymous, just an ordinary international student. This was a very fortunate thing. If I were always only just a 1989 figure, active in the media, talking about politics every day, I’d feel really awful. During my time at Harvard, besides going to class, I also became friends with some people who had nothing to do with politics. It was just a very ordinary situation.
YC: Why did you go to Taiwan?
Wang Dan: Soon after I got to Harvard, I started to frequent the library. I saw a magazine called The Journalist (《新新聞》) –– a Taiwan magazine founded in 1987 focusing on social and political commentary. The Journalist covered the process of political transition in Taiwan after martial law was lifted in 1987. I was really excited reading it and began to be very interested in Taiwan. Later, I wrote my dissertation on Taiwan’s White Terror.
YC: Please tell us a bit more about your dissertation.
Wang Dan: This morning I was just talking with my editor, and we’re hoping that Harvard University Press will soon publish the English version. I compared state violence in the 1950s on both sides of the Taiwan Strait. At that time, Taiwan had White Terror, and China had Land Reform, the Campaign to Suppress Counter-revolutionaries, and the Anti-Rightist Movement, which was Red Terror. These are two forms of state violence, but each with different characteristics. What I was interested in was the different mechanisms, the specific methods by which it was carried out. The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) used the method of mass campaigns. I analyzed how they were launched and executed. Taiwan’s White Terror was basically accomplished through political spying, with agents infiltrating society. When the National Security Bureau investigated so-called “communist spy cases,” they were mostly targeting individuals. The Kuomintang (the Nationalist Party) used agents to monitor society, whereas the CCP used the people to monitor each other. They turned everyone into a spy, including some of China’s famous intellectuals, who were also informants.
Back to your question of why I went to Taiwan. I went to Taiwan to teach –– there were no positions in the U.S. to teach Taiwanese history. Second, since my dissertation is a comparison of Taiwan and the mainland and Taiwan had started to democratize, I was interested in living there for a period of time so that I could experience it first-hand. Third, I really like Taiwan –– the scenery, the people, and the relationships between people.
YC: Please tell us more about your time teaching in Taiwan.
Wang Dan: I taught at pretty much all of the top universities in Taiwan, with the exception of National Taiwan University. I taught at Tsing Hua, Cheng Chi, Cheng Kung, and Dongwu –– mainly at Tsing Hua University, but also taught classes at other universities. After I arrived in Taiwan, I discovered a big problem –– they really didn’t understand mainland China. There were basically no courses at universities on contemporary Chinese history covering the period from 1949 to the present. So I decided to teach Chinese contemporary history, which is essentially what I taught during my eight years in Taiwan, in the hope that people in Taiwan would gain a better understanding of mainland China.
Another unexpected benefit was the arrival of mainland students to Taiwan. Shortly after I got to Taiwan, Taiwan opened its doors to students from the mainland. These students were 90-hou, the generation born after 1990. Before knowing them, I was just like a lot of people and looked down on them, believing they were a selfish generation, that they weren’t concerned with politics, that they were brainwashed by the government, and had absolutely no understanding of history. But after interacting with them, I discovered that this was a total misjudgment. They are in fact very idealistic, they really hope to change China. For example, in Taiwan I held debates on the issue of reunification versus Taiwan independence. I organized about 10 such debates, and each time there would be at least three or four students from mainland China who openly stated their names and university affiliation and said they supported Taiwan independence. There was even media covering these debates. This is really hard to imagine, isn’t it? I was really shocked. I asked the students if they were afraid of the media making this public, and one of them said, “If worse comes to worst, I go to jail, no big deal.”
Of course, not all of the 90-hou are like this, but I never really care about the makeup of the majority of any group. I believe that as long as a group has a few leaders, this country has hope. The students I came into contact with in Taiwan were inspiring, and gave me a morale boost. Previously I was pessimistic, and felt that even in 30 or 40 years it was unlikely that China would move towards democracy, but after engaging with the 90s generation, I became an optimist. I believe that I will see China change in the hands of this generation in my lifetime. And do you know just how fearless this generation of students is? They know who I am. There were some students who audited my class, but each semester there are quite a few students who directly selected and registered for my class. My name will appear on their transcript; they’ll take this back to China, and they just don’t care, they still choose my class. As of yet, there hasn’t been any instance of a mainland student being punished for taking one of my classes.
YC: Are you still in touch with them?
Wang Dan: I do stay in touch with some of them. There are a few who are studying for their Ph.Ds. in the U.S. And we have a Facebook group, and have become good friends. But I want to emphasize, it’s not all of the mainland students, but the mindset of at least 10% of the 90s-generation students whom I came into contact with in Taiwan is very forward looking. They’re more enthusiastic than us, and more eager for change. We thought these people supported the Communist Party, but it’s really not like that at all. I can say that 90% of them don’t support the CCP. I also think that this group of students is more resourceful than our 1989 generation of college students. I strongly believe that China will change in their hands. This is one of the reasons why I came back to the U.S., because I think there are more Chinese students like this in the U.S., students who are even more outstanding.
YC: What are some of the other reasons that prompted you to come back to the U.S.?
Wang Dan: Another reason is that I have been thinking about what I can do now. What’s my next step? I think that influencing the younger generation is one of the main things I can do. Of course, if history gives me the opportunity, I will throw myself into the democracy movement, run for office, even become president of China if possible. Why not? But I prefer to be the President of Peking University. But these things are unpredictable, and influencing the younger generation is something I can do right now. So whether I’m in Taiwan, or in America, I give talks wherever I can, to let the younger generation understand history; to let them know that we, as the opponents of the regime, are constructive and not just shouting slogans; and to let them know why China needs democratization to make the country stronger. I want the patriotic younger generation to know that if you are truly patriotic, you must oppose the CCP, and I tell them the logical connection between these two positions. During those years in Taiwan, in my spare time, on weekends, and in the evenings, I would hold “China salons.” I probably organized several hundred of these. The topic was very simple: get to know China. About half of the audience were mainland students, most listened without saying a word, nor asking questions. I felt it was OK, as long as they were listening. My responsibility is to pass the torch on to the next generation.
YC: I read your Tiananmen memoir, in 1989 you became a student leader, but before that, you got your start organizing democracy salons on campus.
Wang Dan: If you look at history, revolutions all start with salons. For example, the French Revolution got its start from salons.
YC: Let’s digress a little here. Can you talk a bit about the democracy salons you organized at Peking University?
Wang Dan: At that time, I was only a freshman; I didn’t have much experience. Liu Gang (劉剛) and those older guys were the first to hold salons. I followed after them. Each time we invited an intellectual, a so-called “counter-revolutionary,” to come. I hoped to use this platform to connect the ivory tower of the university with society.
YC: What kind of scale did you have? How many people attended each democracy salon?
Wang Dan: It could be as few as 20 or so people, but as June 4 approached, and the atmosphere was very tense, sometimes more than a thousand people came.
YC: Where were the salons held?
Wang Dan: Outdoors. We held one salon each week, on an area of grass in front of the statue of Cervantes, next to the foreign students’ dorm.
YC: Cervantes statue…. I like these details. It tickles the imagination.
Wang Dan: It’s a place where young students discussed politics and expressed their political views.
YC: I read that since you returned to the U.S., you’ve already held a few salons: in Boston, New York, Vancouver, and Toronto. How did these events go?
Wang Dan: Generally speaking, I feel that this generation is dissatisfied with China’s current situation. The fact that they left China to go abroad to study demonstrates that they are not that content, particularly those that applied on their own to go abroad. They are seeking new knowledge, but they are also quite confused. First, they don’t know what they can do. Second, they are disappointed in those around them; they feel that most Chinese they know are disappointing. Third, they don’t see any alternatives: who can take the place of the CCP? Because of these three issues, they are not able to express much enthusiasm. But in the process of chatting with them, I feel that there is a flame burning in their hearts. They really want to do something, to change things. When we talk about China, every person is critical. From the things they’ve said, it’s clear that they look at problems deeply; no less deeply than us. All of them have Ph.D.s or Master degrees. They are knowledgeable.
YC: Among the Chinese students studying abroad, many are the children of quangui (權貴), the powerful and the rich. They are beneficiaries of the system and tend to defend it.
Wang Dan: Not necessarily. In the early period of the Chinese Communist Party, many of the leaders were children of wealthy families. For example, Peng Pai was the son of a wealthy man in Shantou. The wealthier the family, the more likely they are to be inclined towards revolution, because they don’t need to worry about their livelihood, and they have more time to read and think. This is a possibility. Children from poor families have to think more about their livelihood, and have more to worry about.
YC: I feel I must disagree here: the powerful and rich families in China today are fundamentally different from the genteel class of traditional Chinese society.
Wang Dan: The parents of these families might be tainted, but the children are just a blank page. I’ve been in touch with some of these 20-year-old kids studying abroad, for example, children of mayors, and also chairs of the Chinese Student Associations who are in direct contact with the Chinese embassies and consulates. I don’t think the latter are spies. I’ve had quite deep conversations with them privately. They all know what’s going on. It doesn’t matter what family they’re born into, youth are youth, and young people have passion.
YC: I wish I could, and I desperately want to, share your enthusiasm. I admit that I have next to no interactions with children from quangui families. If there are rebels in their midst, it’s not showing. You look at today’s human rights lawyers, dissidents, and human rights defenders, people who are making efforts and sacrifices for a free and just China, you will see that the absolute majority of them come from the impoverished countryside.
Wang Dan: To the extent possible, I befriend young people from all different backgrounds born in the 90s. They are very smart, and they grew up in the Internet age. It’s not so easy for them to accept us as friends. But it’s very important to become friends with them. Some colleagues in the democracy movement are divorced from the young generation.
YC: So you believe one of your most important missions is to influence the young generation?
Wang Dan: Yes, one of them. In addition to salons, in the future I may organize summer camps and trainings. I’ve been involved in the opposition movement for so many years — what sort of look does the opposition movement take on in order to integrate with this era –– that is an important question. Starting from the time I was 20 until now, 30 years have passed, and what I have been doing politically is politics. For example, we have critiqued the totalitarian system, exposed abuses, rescued political prisoners, organized political parties, established several human rights awards, etc. I will continue to do these things, but now I feel that I’ve reached a time when I need to adjust what I’m doing; I want to somewhat remove myself from current, immediate events to think about what China will be like after the communist regime is gone. A lot of people are thinking about how to overthrow the CCP; I won’t be missed. The issue is this: if there comes a day when the CCP is toppled, regardless if it’s caused by other people or itself internally, what sort of situation will China find itself in afterwards? We need to have sand-table rehearsals. I’m interested in policies and technicalities for a democratic, post-communist China. Between politics and policies, I hope to devote some time and energy on the latter.
YC: That’s interesting and certainly forward-thinking. In the west, people are getting used to the idea that communist China is so stable that it will never fall. In any case, their plans are made based on such assumptions. But I keep thinking that the CCP hasn’t even stabilized something as basic as power succession.
Wang Dan: We need to have something like a shadow cabinet. We need to come out with a political white paper: how to conduct privatization of land; how to define a new university self-governance law. Obviously, this is a big ambition; it’s not something that can be done in a short amount of time. But this is the second big goal I set for myself after returning to the U.S.: I’m planning on establishing a small think tank to research and advance a set of specific governance policies.
YC: You didn’t leave China until the end of the 1990s, so you know the 90s well. Since the early 2000s, the rights defense movement has emerged, NGOs have burgeoned, and faith communities have expanded rapidly in both urban and rural areas, the entire social strata has changed as a result of the economy opening up. Previously, everyone belonged to a work unit, a “danwei.” Now a significant part of China’s population doesn’t rely on state-owned work units. They might work for a foreign enterprise or a private enterprise, or they might run their own small business or be engaged in other relatively independent professions such as being a lawyer. The rights consciousness of these people is totally different than before. I personally think they have been and will be the force for change because they are less subservient to the system. One may even say that they hate it, or they have every reason to detest it. What sort of observations do you have regarding the past 20 years in China?
Wang Dan: Profound changes occurred in China after 1989. First, never in the thousands of years of Chinese history has there been an era like today’s China in which everything is centered on making money—the economy takes precedence above all else. The second profound change is that in the entire country—from the elite strata to the general population—few have any sense of responsibility for the country or society. They’ve totally given up. From those in power to intellectuals to college students to average citizens, most people do not think that this country is theirs, they believe that China’s affairs are someone else’s business and that it has nothing to do with them. This is a first in China. I believe that these are two important reasons why China has not yet democratized. Therefore speaking from the perspective of the opposition, the most important task is the work of enlightenment. Those people who advocate violent revolution probably will oppose what I say, but I think Chinese people still need to be enlightened.
YC: I want to interject here that the fact that the elite class, whether it’s intellectuals or the moneyed class, have given up responsibility for the country is an indication of the rigor of communist totalitarianism. Isn’t that so? Hasn’t the Party worked methodically, meticulously, and cruelly to diminish individuals, including the elite class, into powerless atoms, preventing them from becoming a force, making sure they are beholden to the state, and depriving them even of a free-speaking Weibo (Chinese Twitter-like microblog) account? Having a citizenry that takes the country’s future into its own hand is at variance with the totalitarian system. It’s against the system’s requirement. On a personal level, acting out of a sense of duty for the country’s future is suicidal, it goes against one’s instinct for survival. Look at what happened to Liu Xiaobo and Ilham Tohti. Look at those lawyers who are tortured, disbarred, or harassed for defending human rights. Look at the professors who were expelled from teaching for uttering a bit of dissent. The Communist Party has a monopoly on China’s future as long as it’s in power, just as it does on the past and the present. Now please explain to us what you mean by enlightenment.
Wang Dan: For example, the majority of ordinary citizens sincerely believe that if China becomes a democracy, there will be chaos. Even if they have not been brainwashed by the CCP, even if they loathe Communist Party members, they still feel this way. Why do they think this? We need to reason with them. For example, just because the 1989 movement failed, it does not mean that it wasn’t the right thing to do. If you don’t talk about issues like these, the majority of people won’t think about them, therefore we must reason with them. This ability to inspire people through reason has a great potential to mobilize society.
YC: It was probably around the time of 2007 or 2008 when I first started looking at China’s Internet. There was also censorship, but comparing the Internet expression at that time to today, it was like a paradise back then, and there was a lot of what you call enlightenment, many public intellectuals or writers had many fans, and they could say and did say a lot. It was also around that time the CCP sensed a crisis, believing that if they continued to have lax control over speech on the Internet, their political power would be in imminent danger. Thus the censorship regime during the past decade has become stricter and more absurd. So now you are facing a very practical problem, even someone like Peking University law professor He Weifang can no longer keep a Weibo microblog account. People’s throats are being strangled, there’s no way for them to speak.
Wang Dan: Now it is very difficult, we must admit. But we shouldn’t give up just because some difficulties exist and sink into despair. Nietzsche said the disadvantaged don’t have the right to be pessimistic. You’re already underprivileged, if you’re then also pessimistic, your only option is to give up. I believe now is the darkness before the dawn. It truly is the most difficult time, but it is also the time when we have to persist the most. Like me, traveling around giving talks, oftentimes there aren’t many people at each talk, maybe 20 or so, but I feel it’s worth it.
YC: Liu Xiaobo died in a prison hospital. Even as someone who doesn’t know his work in any depth, I feel hit hard by it and it is difficult to grapple with. It’s like, for all these years, everyone sort of expected him to come out of prison rested and ready to go in 2020 after he served out his prison term. That’s not too far from now. When he died, it dawned on a lot of us that the CCP would never have let him walk out of jail alive. You were together with Liu Xiaobo in Tiananmen Square, and you worked with him during the 1990s, how does his death affect you?
Wang Dan: I grieve Xiaobo’s death as many others do. But I know that he would want us the living to do more. We need to do things that he can’t do anymore. And the best remembrance of Liu Xiaobo is to get more done and to see that his ideals for China become true.
YC: Many people won’t have the opportunity that I have to sit down with you. They know who you are, but they don’t know what you have been doing. They will say, “Those people who’ve been abroad all these years, what have they done? We haven’t seen anything!” How would you respond?
Wang Dan: First, I don’t really care about the various criticisms of me that others may make. I actually welcome it. It’s a form of encouragement, and at the very least, it’s a reminder. I personally feel I’ve done some things as I’ve told you. In addition, I’ve also come out with quite a few books that have made an impact.
YC: Could you tell us about your books?
Wang Dan: The book that’s sold the best is Wang Dan’s Memoir (《王丹回憶錄：六四到流亡》). And then there’s Fifteen Lectures on The History of the People’s Republic of China (《中華人民共和国史十五講》). Both were published in Taiwan, and both have sold well. The third book, titled 80 Questions About China (《關於中國的80個問題》), is the most recent. These 80 questions were all questions I encountered at the salons, so I packaged them together.
YC: What are a few examples of these questions?
Wang Dan: For example: Was Deng Xiaoping really the “chief engineer” of China’s reform and opening up? Why should we not place hope on a Gorbachev emerging from the CCP? Why hasn’t China’s middle class become promoters of democracy? In China, how does the CCP suppress opposition forces? Will democracy lead to social instability? Why don’t Chinese people speak up? Who are the people who might be able to change China? Why do we say “reform is dead”?
YC: While in Taiwan, you also founded the New School for Democracy (華人民主書院). What does it do?
Wang Dan: The New School for Democracy was founded on October 1, 2012. At the time, I wanted to advance the idea of a “global Chinese civil society” spanning Hong Kong, Taiwan, the mainland, Macao, Malaysia, Singapore, and overseas Chinese communities. Our Board of Directors are people from Hong Kong, Taiwan and mainland China. What we all face is the Chinese Communist Party. The CCP not only impacts the people of China, but also Taiwan and Hong Kong, and it influences the interests of Chinese all over the world, so I felt that we should all unite and combine efforts. We had an online course, and invited some scholars to give lectures. We later realized that there were not many people interested in a very specialized online course. A Salon was a major project of the school, and it is my contribution as chair of the Board of Directors. We also published a magazine, “Public Intellectual,” which we issued eight times before we had to stop due to lack of funding. Now that I have come back to the U.S., I hope to bring some of the school’s activities here, such as online classes, salons, trainings, and a summer camp.
YC: Your summer camp idea is really interesting. What would it look like?
Wang Dan: A summer camp that brings together students from Taiwan, Hong Kong, and mainland China who are studying in the U.S. They spend a week together, everyone becomes friends, exchanges views, and they have a better understanding of each other. They learn how to rationally discuss issues. No matter how controversial or sensitive our topic is, they must learn how to speak civilly. You can’t just curse another person because you don’t agree with something he or she said.
YC: On social media, I’ve seen so many people who lack the most basic democratic qualities although they ardently oppose dictatorship and champion democracy. They launch ad hominem attacks without making efforts to get the basic facts straight, and use the foulest language to hurl insults at people.
Wang Dan: So I think that one of the fundamental trainings is how to listen attentively to what the other person is saying, and to take care in how one says things –– to speak civilly and mindfully. There’s also some basic etiquette when speaking, such as not to interrupt others, etc.
YC: I think that’s about it. I hope you settle in smoothly, and that you’re able to start doing the things you want to do as soon as possible.
Wang Dan: It’s been eight years since I left the U.S. I can’t do the things I want to do all by myself. I’m looking forward to connecting with people in certain groups. First, Chinese students studying in the U.S.; second, Chinese living in the U. S. who are not engaged in the democracy movement but are concerned about democracy and politics; third, Americans who study China.
YC: Thank you. I wish you success in your work and life.
Yaxue Cao edits this website. Follow her on Twitter @yaxuecao
Liu Xiaobo: Walking the Path of Kang Youwei, Spilling His Blood Like Tan Sitong, Wang Dan, July 20, 2017.
Tiananmen’s Most Wanted, the New York Times, June 4, 2014.
From Dr Wang Bingzhang, a Special Prayer on the 15th Anniversary of His Abduction by the Chinese Government
Yaxue Cao, September 18, 2017
Last Friday, Dr. Wang Bingzhang’s family – his wife, children and siblings in Canada and the U. S. – received a letter from him in Shaoguan Prison (韶关监狱), Guangdong. He shared “a special prayer” with them on the occasion of the 15th anniversary of his kidnapping:
My loved ones, June 27, 2017 is the 15th anniversary of when I was abducted and imprisoned. On this special day, I’ve made a special prayer that I’d like to share with all of you:
To my Holy Creator, my Lord in Heaven, God, Heavenly Father, Holy Son Jesus Christ, and the Holy Spirit:
Your servant Wang Bingzhang (王炳章) prays to you. On June 27, 2002, 15 years ago now, I was abducted and from that day on have been imprisoned in solitary confinement.
I thank you for staying by my side for these 15 years, offering me support and guidance. I thank you for making use of me, and for giving me a special mission: from the time you created humankind, setting out that it was my mission to help promulgate the natural laws, norms, standards, and truths you established for man to live by, as shown in ancient civilization, the classic texts of the world, and in the works of our ancestors. I have come to realize that you have a grand plan for the salvation of the world and humankind; to make this mad world return once more to norms you established, and to help the lost world of man return to your embrace. I feel greatly honored that I can make a small contribution to the grand plan you have laid out. I know that everything of mine was given by you, and that all glory belongs to you.
I will absolutely not fail in the mission you gave me. I’ll continue to cherish myself, I’ll keep my mind and body in good order, and live the years you allotted me. Under your teaching, inspiration, and guidance, I do your work every day. I guarantee that your selection of me, your deep love, your accompaniment, your divine inspiration, and your grace encourages me to be braver and work without fear, even if I have to spend another 15 years in jail. I will redouble my efforts and leave behind a record that renders glory to your sacred name.
I love you all,
From solitary confinement in Shaoguan Prison
June 27, 2017
Dr. Wang Bingzhang was among the first Chinese students sent overseas to study science and technology by the Chinese government when Deng Xiaoping opened up the country in 1977. He studied medicine at McGill University in Montreal, Canada, from 1979 to 1982, and became the first Chinese from the mainland to receive an overseas Ph.D. after the Cultural Revolution. He was the pride of China and a source of inspiration; his success was reported in the Chinese-language newspapers, both inside and outside China. But no sooner had he completed his degree than he abandoned a medical career for something uncharted and illusive: starting a movement to transform China into a democracy.
In November, 1982, he founded the China Spring magazine and made an announcement in the World Journal (《世界日报》), the largest Chinese newspaper in America: “The new emerging democratic movement in contemporary China needs activists. From now on… I will lay down the cherished scalpels of a surgeon and pick up those of a social reformer to remove the ulcers and tumors of Chinese society. The road ahead will be thorny and arduous, but it will be the road to light and hope.”
The magazine laid out five goals for political reform in China at the time when Brezhnev was the head of the USSR and Taiwan would not be lifting its ban on a free press and other political parties for another five years:
- Abolition of one-party rule;
- Separation of party from the government, military and judiciary;
- Separation of the executive, the legislature, and the judiciary;
- Direct election of national leaders; and
It also laid out five goals for economic reform:
- Establishment of a market economy;
- The co-existence of multiple economic systems;
- Protection of private property;
- Independent unions; and
- Farmers’ land ownership and usage rights.
In the next two decades, Dr. Wang Bingzhang moved between United States, Canada, Hong Kong and Taiwan, and founded and led the Chinese Alliance for Democracy (中国民主团结联盟) in the 1980s. He also snuck back to China to form a clandestine opposition party – the Democracy Party of China. Their activities were little known to the English-speaking world. The New York Times only found out in May 1987, with its story “China Opposition Thrives in Queens,” after Beijing denounced the activities of Dr. Wang and colleagues.
Dr. Wang published a pamphlet titled The Path to China’s Democratic Revolution (《中国民主革命之路》), also known as the Handbook of the Democratic Movement (《民运手册──中国民主化运动百题问答》), answering 120 questions having to do with China’s democratic transformation. His essay Rebuilding the Republic of China (《重建中华民国》) advocated “uniting China with democracy” and restoring the Republic of China as a simple and convenient replacement for the CCP regime.
On June 27, 2002, while near China’s border with Vietnam with two others, Dr. Wang was kidnapped, according to accounts by his companions, and taken to China. On December 20 of that year, the official Xinhua News Agency announced his arrest, giving few details of Dr. Wang’s supposed crimes, “other than to say that he had passed state secrets to Taiwan and posted essays on the Internet related to terrorist acts, which threatened state security.”
On February 2003, Dr. Wang was given a one-day trial held behind closed doors, during which he was not allowed to speak, no evidence was presented, and no witnesses were called. He was convicted and sentenced to life imprisonment by the Shenzhen People’s Intermediate Court, the harshest sentence handed out to a political prisoner since 1978.
On February 28, 2003, Guangdong Supreme People’s Court maintained the sentence by the first trial court. When the verdict was read, Dr. Wang Bingzhang shouted, “I was kidnapped! I protest the illegal trial!” His youngest sister, allowed to attend the trial, met with him, and he asked for a copy of the Bible. Since then he has been imprisoned in Shaoguan, Guangdong province.
Over the past 15 years, Dr. Wang’s siblings and grown children visited him a couple of times every year from North America for a 30-minutes meeting. The most outspoken among them have been denied visas over the years. He has been able to write letters home, and each one evinces a heart-wrenching longing for the day when he can walk out of China’s prison, alive and free.
The loved ones of Dr. Wang sometimes wonders if it’s all been worth it: 35 years after he and his colleagues laid out the goals for political and economic reform, none of them has been realized under communist rule. And now, those in power are richer than kings. Meanwhile, with money, the state-capitalist China has been exporting corruption, censorship, and political influence that undermines democracy.
Dr. Wang is 69 years old. He has been treated for cardiovascular and gastroenterological conditions while in custody. Relatives described symptoms of a mental condition, too. Years of campaigning and diplomatic efforts have not availed. It was an illegal act by a state actor to kidnap Dr. Wang in Vietnam, and the trial has no legitimacy by international standards, or even by China’s own procedural and criminal laws. Fifteen years of solitary confinement is beyond the pale by any humanitarian standard.
China must free Dr. Wang Bingzhang, and governments around the world, the Canadian government in particular, must renew their efforts to bring Dr. Wang out of jail and out of China.
Inside These Walls, a CBC documentary, August 6, 2017.
Hermann Aubié, September 5, 2017
During the eight and a half years that Liu Xiaobo spent in Jinzhou prison, only intermittent attention to both his fate and Liu Xia’s detention kept him from becoming gradually invisible, despite being the world’s only imprisoned Peace Nobel laureate. Now that Liu Xiaobo has passed away of liver cancer on July 13, 2017, there is an even greater danger that what he expressed and stood for will be either poorly remembered or completely forgotten.
In the absence of a comprehensive bibliography of his writings, I compiled this list of Liu Xiaobo’s texts that were found on various Chinese websites, magazines, journals and books that had mostly been published in Hong Kong and Taiwan, as part of my dissertation that provides the first comprehensive academic study in English of Liu Xiaobo’s human rights struggle from a socio-historical perspective. In addition to several interviews with foreign media, Liu published eleven books and about one thousand articles covering an impressive range of topics. After translating all the titles of his texts into English, I added brief annotations and footnotes about the general topic of each text when the titles did not provide any obvious indication on their own.
Because only a few translations of Liu Xiaobo’s writings are available in English (in total less than 1% of all his writings), the discussion of Liu Xiaobo’s struggle for human rights in Western media and academia has often been limited to a small set of quotes that are not representative of what he stood for as a whole. As a result, there is still a gap of understanding between Chinese and foreign writings on Liu Xiaobo. Hopefully, this bibliography will inspire future researchers to look deeper into his work to improve the public knowledge and understanding of what Liu Xiaobo gave his life for.
A note on the hyperlinks: All the text that is hyperlinked in blue was originally linking up to the text of his articles or translations, but many of them might have changed since then. If the URL is no longer functional, a simple Google search will turn up valid substitutes.
About the author:
Hermann Aubié is a lecturer in sociology and policy at Aston University in Birmingham, England; he completed his PhD at the Centre for East Asian Studies of the University of Turku (Finland) in 2016 with a dissertation titled “Liu Xiaobo’s Struggle for Human rights: A Contextual Analysis from a Historical Perspective” which is forthcoming as a book.
After doing his BA and MA at the University of Western Brittany in France and the University of Glasgow, he spent five years working in China as a teacher, researcher and consultant for the EU-China Civil Society Dialogue.
His research focuses on contemporary politics, human rights, and civil society transformations in China and East Asia, with particular attention on how citizens use the law and media to promote socio-political change, and to redress injustice for individuals/groups who are persecuted and discriminated against.
From Brittany, in Memory of Liu Xiaobo’s Spirit and Voice of Conscience, Hermann Aubié, August 9, 2017
Liu Xiaobo: The Founder of China’s Political Opposition Movements, Wu Qiang, June 30, 2017.
The Path Forward in the Wake of Liu Xiaobo’s Passing, Yaxue Cao, July 16, 2017.
As Liu Xiaobo Dies in Isolation, It’s Time to Abandon ‘Quiet Diplomacy’, Chang Ping, July 18, 2017.
By Yang Jianli, July 22, 2017
“The U.S. should implement targeted sanctions against those personally responsible for Liu Xiaobo’s death. The U.S. can use the Global Magnitsky Act as a tool to sanction them—banning them from traveling in the U.S. and freezing their assets in this country—and also encourage its allies to do the same. It should also consider trade sanctions. In addition, the U.S. can honor Liu Xiaobo’s life and legacy by passing legislation to permanently rename the street in front of the Chinese Embassy in Washington DC as ‘Liu Xiaobo Plaza.’”
The world lost a hero when China’s only Nobel Peace Prize laureate, Liu Xiaobo, died of liver cancer in Chinese custody on July 13, 2017.
In life as well as in death Liu Xiaobo represents the best of what China can ever be. He possessed a moral authority unimaginable to his persecutors, and his legacy of love, justice, and sacrifice will surely far outlive the deeds of those who persecuted him. His spirit will be an uplifting and unifying force that will inspire more Chinese people to fight to realize his dream—indeed, the common dream of the Chinese people. To the world, he represents the universal values that all democracies embrace, and he stands for the unwavering struggle of unfree people. Liu Xiaobo is a representative of universal ideas that resonate with millions of people all over the world.
Chinese human rights and democracy advocates had all hoped that Liu Xiaobo would one day complete his unjust prison sentence, and then reengage in his passionate quest for human rights and democracy in China, and also perhaps one day be able to savor the fruits of his life’s work. But instead, he is gone. Now, more than ever, it is critical to demand justice for Liu Xiaobo’s death, to lend a helping hand to assist his widow, Liu Xia, and other members of his family, and to fight in every way possible to honor the legacy of his courage and sacrifice.
Many suspect that the Chinese officials intentionally concealed Liu Xiaobo’s illness from him and his family, and intentionally hastened his death by denying him proper care. Liu Xiaobo’s cancer was reportedly diagnosed on May 23 during an emergency hospital visit because of internal bleeding. However, the news of his late-stage cancer did not become known until late June. During this time, his tumor enlarged from 5-6 cm to 11-12 cm. As early as 2010, Liu Xiaobo was suspected of suffering from hepatitis B, but the Chinese authorities never allowed him to receive a proper diagnosis and treatment. Moreover, Liu Xiaobo reportedly had two CT tests in 2016, which likely would have revealed large liver tumors. Medical parole in China is a political, rather than a medical, decision. In Liu Xiaobo’s case it was up to China’s top leaders to decide. What they chose was a thinly disguised death sentence.
Liu Xiaobo had been held incommunicado since December 2008 until he became terminally ill and was eventually allowed a visit by a German and an American doctor following an international outcry. During his entire imprisonment, he was not allowed to discuss current events, nor the persecutions that his wife Liu Xia and her family suffered. When Liu Xiaobo’s worsening condition became public, 154 Nobel laureates, human rights activists around the globe, and a handful of world leaders called for his immediate release and medical treatment overseas. Liu Xiaobo himself also expressed his wish to seek medical treatment abroad and to die in free country. Tragically, the Chinese regime callously disregarded these requests. After persecuting him for so many years, the regime didn’t give a second thought to denying him his final wish.
Without a doubt, the Chinese communist regime is responsible for Liu Xiaobo’s death. However, the policy of appeasement carried out by democracies towards China’s human rights abuses has made them accomplices to Liu Xiaobo’s slow and stealthy murder. It is a sad and disturbing fact that many leaders of the free world, who themselves hold democracy and human rights in high regard, have been less willing to stand up for those rights for the benefit of others. If the world continues to acquiesce to China’s aggression against its own people, Liu Xiaobo’s tragedy will be repeated, and the democratic ideal and the security of all free peoples will be in jeopardy.
The tragic death of Liu Xiaobo should give all of us a stronger sense of urgency in helping prisoners of conscience of China. It is a legitimate concern that now we can expect more human rights activists will languish and disappear in Chinese prisons: Wang Bingzhang, Hu Shigen, Zhu Yufu, Ilham Tohti, Tashi Wangchuk, Wang Quanzhang, Jiang Tianyong, Tang Jingling, Wu Gan, Guo Feixiong, Liu Xianbin, Chen Wei, Zhang Haitao… the list goes on. If American advocacy for human rights and justice is to mean anything at all, the U.S. government must do more to support these political prisoners and to hold accountable the Chinese government and individuals who so brazenly abuse the fundamental rights of its people.
The U.S. can also do more to help Liu Xiaobo’s family. The Trump administration should make it an urgent priority to help Liu Xia leave China for a country of her choosing. The U.S. should implement targeted sanctions against those personally responsible for Liu Xiaobo’s death. The U.S. can use the Global Magnitsky Act as a tool to sanction them—banning them from traveling in the U.S. and freezing their assets in this country—and also encourage its allies to do the same. It should also consider trade sanctions. In addition, the U.S. can honor Liu Xiaobo’s life and legacy by passing legislation to permanently rename the street in front of the Chinese Embassy in Washington DC as “Liu Xiaobo Plaza.”
To fight for the ideals of human rights and democracy, Liu Xiaobo sacrificed his career, his freedom, and now, his life. But we cannot give up on him. We have to seek justice for Liu Xiaobo’s death at the hands of the Chinese regime, and we have to prevent the tragedy that awaits his widow, Liu Xia, if we do not act immediately to help her get out of China, and we have to preserve the legacy of Liu Xiaobo’s struggle for a democratic and free China.
Yang Jianli (杨建利) is the President of Initiatives for China, a Washington, D. C.-based NGO devoted to promoting human rights and political change in China.
Liu Xiaobo: The Founder of China’s Political Opposition Movements, Wu Qiang, June 30, 2017.
The Path Forward in the Wake of Liu Xiaobo’s Passing, Yaxue Cao, July 16, 2017.
As Liu Xiaobo Dies in Isolation, It’s Time to Abandon ‘Quiet Diplomacy’, Chang Ping, July 18, 2017.
Liu Xiaobo: Walking the Path of Kang Youwei, Spilling His Blood Like Tan Sitong, Wang Dan, July 20, 2017.
Wu Qiang, June 30, 2017
These actions show that Liu Xiaobo is not only a hardworking dissident author, but also a leader and organizer of political opposition. His superb leadership ability and political acumen allowed him to establish, during the course of the first decade of the 21st century, in a strict authoritarian environment, a movement that inherited the spirit of the Tiananmen democracy movement, an organizational network, and a nationwide opposition platform. In each instance he changed the pessimistic attitude people had toward the political “circumstances,” and helped Chinese citizens stop waiting around and watching from the sidelines, instead inspiring them to actively work for change themselves. — Wu Qiang
The news of Liu Xiaobo’s (刘晓波) terminal liver cancer emerged over the last few days on Chinese social media and in the international press and, remarkably, was met with official confirmation. Amidst the shock and grievance, an open letter by Chinese intellectuals, dissidents, and activists has been published demanding that Liu be released to receive medical treatment. Many are now wondering: How will the 2010 Nobel Peace Prize laureate spend the final days of his life? Will he be able to actually receive the prize from the Norwegian Nobel Committee? Will his life and death alter China’s destiny? In particular, in the crucial period before the Chinese Communist Party’s 19th National Party Congress this fall, the deterioration of Liu Xiaobo’s health, as well as his status as a political symbol, have become sensitive questions that could play a role in political developments and have potentially explosive implications.
It must, of course, be acknowledged that accurately evaluating Liu Xiaobo’s political contribution and assessing the impact of his death is exceedingly difficult. The influence of Liu Xiaobo on the minds of the majority of the Chinese citizenry isn’t as great as his supporters sometimes imagine. The older generation is likely to have a vague impression of him being maligned by the government after the June 4 massacre as a “black hand behind the scenes,” while younger people are apt to have no idea at all who he is — just as they have no memories of the Tiananmen movement itself.
Even in the world of Chinese political activists, opinions on Liu Xiaobo are polarized, and this has to a large degree also impacted his exposure among the public. The most controversial item is no doubt the last sentence of Liu’s statement, delivered to the court on November 23, 2009 (and later adapted as his Nobel acceptance speech in absentia): “ I Have No Enemies.” A significant number of committed democracy activists in China have for years strongly maintained that this pledge was no less than Liu’s capitulation. They facetiously call him “No Enemy Liu,” and dismiss his path of nonviolent resistance. This, however, is precisely why the Norwegian Nobel Committee thought so highly of him, and it’s likely also the reason that so many Chinese activists are proud of him and see him as China’s own Mandela, Ghandi, Aung San Suu Kyi, or Xanana Gusmão. Though it also led to another view, which was that the civil society in China has no need to call for Liu’s amnesty, as this would simply be an acknowledgement of the legitimacy of the sentence against him. This has been a view propagated precisely by the activists who purportedly support Liu.
The result of all this has been that, while Liu Xiaobo spent nearly a long decade in jail, not only was his wife Liu Xia (刘霞) put under house arrest and isolated by the authorities, but the so-called Liu Xiaobo supporters, who supposedly had “no enemies,” created a conceptual rift between Liu Xiaobo and the public. They not only failed to proactively expound on his theories of nonviolent resistance — the failure to do which goes against what Liu stood for in the first place — but in fact ended up playing the role of isolating him, and dampening the awareness of his political contribution among the Chinese citizenry. It must be observed, of course, that this circumstance to some degree reflects the fragmented and chaotic state of opposition politics, and the attenuation of civil society in post-2008 China, when Liu was detained and jailed. For all these reasons, evaluating afresh Liu Xiaobo’s remarkable contribution to Chinese opposition politics, including from the perspective of the Norwegian Nobel Committee when they gave him the prestigious award, will be a profitable exercise.
December 10, 2010, was the two year anniversary since Liu Xiaobo’s involvement in the “Charter 08” movement; it was also the United Nations’ Human Rights Day; and it was the day that the Norwegian Nobel Committee left an empty chair for Liu Xiaobo at the ceremony in which they awarded him the Nobel Peace Prize. The award ceremony speech recollected the history of Liu Xiaobo’s activism, from the 1989 Tiananmen student protests to the “Charter 08” movement, and praised him for his commitment to nonviolent activism; on this topic the chairman of the committee quoted Liu’s own words: “The greatness of non-violent resistance is that even as man is faced with forceful tyranny and the resulting suffering, the victim responds to hate with love, to prejudice with tolerance, to arrogance with humility, to humiliation with dignity, and to violence with reason.”
This is obviously an entirely appropriate summation and praise of Liu Xiaobo’s struggle for human rights — and yet, it still doesn’t fully make clear the special contribution Liu made to promoting resistance in China and political transition over the over 20 years since 1989. Liu is closer to an Aung San Suu Kyi than a Mandela, who at one point embraced armed resistance, or a Gusmao, the leader of East Timor’s resistance movement. Liu’s work far exceeds either the narrow praise or attacks afforded it by his typical supporters and critics. Liu Xiaobo’s contribution and influence has successors among today’s social and political activists. Every year during the June 4 memorial in Hong Kong, the seed that Liu planted can be seen, grown and blooming once again.
Simply put, when he was released from prison the second time in 1999, Liu picked up the pen instead of the sword, quickly becoming an active voice for political dissent. But more importantly, in the short period in which he was free, he was involved in the founding of three movements and organizations that were the embryonic form of China’s political opposition — this is what gives Liu his stature as China’s equivalent to a Mandela-type political figure.
Firstly, in 2000 Liu Xiaobo helped Ding Zilin (丁子霖), Zhang Xianling (张先玲), and others, to initiate the “Tiananmen Mothers” (天安门母亲) movement. By 2004, 15 years after the Tiananmen movement, Tiananmen Mothers had collated a name list of 126 mothers of those killed; on May 16 of that year, 40 Tiananmen Mothers mourned together in a joint ceremony. The significance of this was that it turned what was in 1990 a small-scale group of mothers who were petitioning and writing appeals, into a social movement that enjoyed widespread public support and international currency. Tiananmen Mothers persists to this day, having become something like the Chinese version of Argentina’s “Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo.” This is just an example of the precious value of the example set by Liu’s nonviolent ideals that encourages more and more mothers and wives of human rights victims to join the struggle — the latest manifestation of which is the group of wives of the “709” human rights lawyers.
Secondly, in 2001, Liu Xiaobo and the exile democrats Bei Ling (贝岭), Meng Lang (孟浪), and others, together established what would become the Independent Chinese PEN Center (独立中文笔会); he also served as its president for two terms. It was an attempt to appeal to the widest possible number of Chinese political dissidents and writers. He turned the Center into a meeting ground for China’s rights defense activists and political dissidents, and planted the seed for China’s opposition movements and online presence.
Thirdly, in 2008, 60 years after the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was promulgated, 30 years after the Xidan Democracy Wall movement, and 10 years after China signed (but did not ratify) the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, Liu Xiaobo, Zhang Zuhua (张祖桦) and others, in imitation of Czechoslovakia’s “Charter 77” movement, initiated a “Charter 08” for China. The goal was to mobilize, to the maximum extent, China’s forces of political opposition and to initiate a “gradual, peaceful, orderly, and manageable” transition to constitutional governance. Liu Xiaobo was arrested for this, charged with “inciting subversion of state power,” and sentenced to 11 years imprisonment.
These actions show that Liu Xiaobo is not only a hardworking dissident author, but also a leader and organizer of political opposition. His superb leadership ability and political acumen allowed him to establish, during the course of the first decade of the 21st century, in a strict authoritarian environment, a movement that inherited the spirit of the Tiananmen democracy movement, an organizational network, and a nationwide opposition platform. In each instance he changed the pessimistic attitude people had toward the political “circumstances,” and helped Chinese citizens stop waiting around and watching from the sidelines, instead inspiring them to actively work for change themselves.
Some of these activities were publicized and learned about abroad, while others were kept quiet, and only those deeply involved knew what really happened. The organizers were as circumspect and low-key as Liu Xiaobo — silently and diligently working away in the post-1989 period of social transformation, advocating gradual transition like Liu Xiaobo. They gradually but steadfastly got past the muddled sense of opposition they felt during the 1989 movement, the vague “self-reflection” they went through in the early 1990s. They bid farewell to the often noisy and chaotic “overseas democracy movement” set off by the Xidan Democracy Wall and followed by large-scale exile after 1989. Instead, they worked to build the framework, in the era of China’s economic takeoff, social transformation and Internet, for a clear and purposeful opposition movement that would have a far-reaching impact on China’s development and the direction of its future political transition. Liu Xiaobo led this transition of China’s political opposition, exactly the way he abruptly left the U. S. as a visiting scholar in the later half of the 1989 student movement to exercise leadership. In both instances, his actions were rooted in mature thinking.
More valuable again was Liu Xiaobo’s continued insistence on non-violent resistance and political opposition, despite being sentenced to 11 years in prison. This is the dual meaning of Liu’s “I have no enemies” statement: persevering in non-violent resistance — rather than adopting a “fight to the death” style — is the only way to preserve space for political opposition in a highly authoritarian state, as well as to preserve the flexibility, possibility, and longevity of the opposition movement. Characteristic of this is Liu Xiaobo’s insistence in court of upholding Article 35 of the Chinese constitution, regarding the rights to freedom of speech, the press, assembly, organization, marches, and demonstrations. In so doing he turned the criminal accusations against him into a political defense of his own constitutional rights and an examination of the judicial system. This is another important way for political opposition movements in China to engage in lawful struggle.
Apart from being welcomed by the opposition movement itself, this mode of resistance also has a strong appeal to the wider Chinese citizenry, including the burgeoning middle class, whose pursuit of the “good life” and social order it fits in well with. As Walter Benjamin writes in Theological-Political Fragment, the secular order founded in and oriented around the good life is constituted by a value outlook based on love, lenience, humility, dignity, and rationality — it transcends the relationship between the public and the sovereign or its police agents, as well as the ruling structure. This spirit was continued in the “New Citizens Movement” (新公民运动) of Xu Zhiyong (许志永) and others. That movement emphasized “liberty, justice, love” and was an attempt to, through the concept of “transparent, constitutional government” and the demand for “equality in education,” and so on, mobilize a growing urban middle class, and transform them into a new political force.
Thus, precisely in an authoritarian, materialist state full of human rights abuses, Liu Xiaobo’s voice in the courtroom that “I have no enemies,” injected into China’s human rights struggle and political opposition the Buddhist-inspired spirit of compassion of Aung San Suu Kyi, a spiritual power that shows a specially Asian character in its vision of the struggle for human rights and the transition to democracy. This was not only enough to sustain Liu through his imprisonment; it will also become part of his precious moral heritage and political legacy; it will win him wider public support; and it will have a long-lasting influence on the future of political opposition in China.
Dr. Wu Qiang (吴强) holds a Ph.D. in political science from the University of Duisburg-Essen in Germany. He is a researcher of social movements and a freelance writer.
Also by Wu Qiang:
Translated from a revised version of this article: https://theinitium.com/article/20170628-opinion-wuqiang-liuxiaobo/
Interview With Yu Zhijian, One of the ‘Three Hunan Hooligans’ Who Defaced the Portrait of Mao Zedong Over Tiananmen Square in 1989, Part Two
Liao Yiwu, June 2, 2017
(Continued from Part One)
LIAO: I’ve heard some people say that if they had known blood was going to be shed, they would not have resisted.
YU ZHIJIAN: It was the student’s Command Center that turned us over [to the authorities]. The guy who headed the UAA Guards was called Guo Haifeng. He told us his name himself — you have to give him credit for being pretty open and candid. He said that the UAA standing committee members took a vote, with the majority deciding to send us off to the Public Security Bureau of the Eastern Quarter Branch Tiananmen office. He had strongly opposed the decision. After an impassioned debate, he was overruled and, what’s more, charged with the task of delivering us into the hands of the police, since he was the UAA Secretariat. I assured him it was alright and, cleaning out my pockets, handed him for safekeeping the two-thousand yuan we had left. He wrote me a receipt on the spot, and he asked the police to provide proof that we had been dropped off. We got into the patrol car in a downpour. The police put the handcuffs on us. Guo stood in the rain for a long time.
LIAO: Could you have escaped at some point during the uproar?
YU ZHIJIAN: I definitely could have slipped away starting when we did the deed at 2:30 p.m. until the cops got their hands on us in the early evening. Not sure about the other two. But why should we run away? We were mentally prepared to shoulder the consequences.
LIAO: What next?
LIAO: The next day, we were transferred to a detention facility. The entire place was empty. There was only one other guy in my cell, an inveterate thief. The guy took everything at his own pace and stayed put; he even asked me to help him to get a drink of water. I really wanted to keep abreast of the movement, but I was completely cut off. I think it would be fair to say that the entire judicial and enforcement system of Beijing was half paralyzed. I barely even saw the wardens in that place. They must have all been watching the power struggle at the highest echelons of the Party to see where the chips were going to fall, to know which way to turn.
LIAO: No prisoner could have ranked higher when it came to incurring imperial displeasure than your gang. You weren’t interrogated overnight? What the..?
YU ZHIJIAN: For the two weeks before and after the massacre, never mind interrogation, no one even bothered with us. I spent the day just lying around. God, my bones hurt from sleeping so much. Thank goodness I am pretty lazy and laid-back by nature; I’d perfected my sleeping technique early on, and I don’t overthink when I run into problems. If the sky is going to cave in, and you keep holding on to hope that it won’t, all that stressing isn’t going to get you anywhere.
The first wave arrived bright and early on June 4. All dedicated youth and college students, averaging no more than twenty. By June 5, so many people came in they filled up the empty cell. The wardens kept stuffing them in after we reached capacity. It’s a good thing people are made of flesh and can expand and contract.
We were formally arrested on June 15. The paralyzed judicial and enforcement system, like me, woke up from a dream and recovered, at a moment’s notice, its vicious capacity to churn at high speed. Wanted notices and announcements went up everywhere, and checkpoints for sweeps flourished. The red terror was comparable to 2003’s SARS epidemic outbreak, when you would have trouble spotting anyone on the street. The sterilization of thought, it turns out, isn’t that different from sterilizing the body.
LIAO: I’m picking up some Taoist vibes here — the state of letting things take their course.
YU ZHIJIAN: In the middle of the night on June 3, gunshots went off outside the walls of the detention center. It was like someone was sautéing peas and woke me up. Fuck! They finally opened fire! These bastards only dogs would fuck went and opened fire! My premonition, Dongyue’s premonition, all came to pass. As they say, political power comes out of the barrel of a gun. This is how the CCP rose to power. Students and intellectuals had no chance in this game against seasoned and murderous players. I could not sleep that night and strolled around my cell until darkness began to lift. Anxiety had all my muscles twitching involuntarily. The thief, very nicely, talked to me about it: What can you do about our country plunging into chaos? Agonizing won’t help any. It’s not like a bursting bladder – just let it out and you’re done with it.
Given the unrest, the Beijing police were not to be trusted either, so the detention and intake facilities were all taken over by the army. The soldiers, coming fresh from airtight brainwashing, bared their teeth and claws and no rules bound them. They thrashed both students and residents within an inch of their lives. When I was getting turned over to the detention center after our arrest, a soldier dangled me like I was a newborn chick and threw me several feet away toward the military jeep. As that wasn’t enough for him, he raised his automatic rifle and whacked my face with the butt, and I spewed out a mouthful of blood. You see this false tooth over here? That’s the replacement for the one I lost then and there.
LIAO: This detention center you were at, was it the Tortoise Building?
YU ZHIJIAN: Yes. Lots of Tiananmen ‘insurgents’ were locked up there.
LIAO: And that includes you?
YU ZHIJIAN: Since we didn’t get around to starting fires and blocking military convoys, we had to content ourselves with being “rapists of our Great Leader.” After five months’ of protracted proceedings in the Tortoise Building, a secret trial was held in the basement of the Beijing Intermediate People’s Court.
LIAO: No sunshine for this trial, I see.
YU ZHIJIAN: The fuckin’ thing was just going through the motions. The crime was there for everyone to see, and what defense we had no one was around to hear. It was over in under two hours. The sentencing was postponed for a week, and then we received the sentencing document.
LIAO: As perfunctory as that?
YU ZHIJIAN: I forgot what statements Decheng and I made. Dongyue’s was the most intriguing. He argued that we had no political end in mind, we were merely finishing a piece of artwork.
LIAO: Performance art?
YU ZHIJIAN: You got it. That’s what Dongyue called it. And the greatest of this century to boot. People would only truly comprehend the full scope of its meaning after years and years.
LIAO: As a piece of political pop art that ended an entire era, personally I think it will become part of the art history of our time.
YU ZHIJIAN: (Laughing). This one went right by the prosecutor and the judge. They couldn’t make head or tail of what Dongyue was saying and, looking like asses, blew their top. They seriously thought he was messing with them. Even the defense lawyer dropped the act and kept interrupting him.
LIAO: That’s priceless. The mood in that courtroom is clearly a part of the performance art by extension.
YU ZHIJIAN: (Chuckles).
LIAO: Did you try to figure out the outcome before that?
YU ZHIJIAN: Everyone was bored in prison, so folks spent a lot of time analyzing our case and peering into crystal balls. You’ve got phrases coming at you like “premeditated and calculated violation, doing the dirty job willfully in the face of great odds,” “with extremely blah-blah means and extremely blab-blah consequences.”
Anyone familiar with the Criminal Code can tell you, when the prosecuting docs specify “especially grave crime and especially vicious particulars,” your head is hanging by a hair. (Sighs). Waiting for death was hard. I even wrote several last notes, for my older sister, my baby brother, and my parents too. Looking back, I was a bit of a wuss: causing them hurt, how sorry I was, hoping they’ll put this unfilial son clear out of their minds, belief that posterity would come to understand what we did and how we had stood up and done something we could stand by, and so on.
LIAO: Somewhat contradictory.
YU ZHIJIAN: You thought one thing one day and something else the next. It was no small thing – confronting death and the empty abyss of it. Terror when you wake and more of the same when you fall asleep. And tears flowed too. But I did not regret doing what I did.
LIAO: When the sentencing document was handed down, you were relieved nonetheless….?
YU ZHIJIAN: The stuffing just about went out of me. What novel did I read this in? The death knell of dictatorship sounds in my ear already! Liberty is before me and all I have to do is to reach for it.
LIAO: Maybe Dongyue was right. That completed this unparalleled performance.
YU ZHIJIAN: I got life and spent 11 years and 6 months in jail. Decheng got 16 years and did 8 years and 8 months. Dongyue got 20 years and, clocking in at 16 years and 9 months, was actually the last one they let out in the end.
LIAO: You didn’t appeal?
YU ZHIJIAN: We didn’t have the death-wish. Year end, 1989, we were sent back to Hunan and kept in the prison in Hengyang.
LIAO: Were you beaten in there? Kept in solitary confinement?
YU ZHIJIAN: Dongyue suffered a lot of torture. One time, after the cops took him apart, a bunch of us protested with a three-day hunger strike. But the authorities refused to apologize. I’d never been put in solitary confinement, but half of the time before 1992 I was locked away under the Disciplinary Team. Pretty horrifying.
LIAO: You were acting up in there?
YU ZHIJIAN: I was new and didn’t have a good grip on how things stood. I told everyone I ran into about the people who died in the massacre, how autocratic and vicious the Communist Party was, hardly stopping to catch my breath. To top it off, I didn’t do the work, all caught up in analyzing the development of current events with other political prisoners. The authorities gave me repeated warnings, which fell on deaf ears, so they announced I was now under “Strict Discipline.” I was beaten up five or six times. This one time the two cops grabbed me and hammered away with two tasers. I fended them off just a tad and then went limp. Fists and steel toe boots flashed like lightening, and had me rolling on the ground. I was wearing quite a decent outfit; after the beating, the whole thing was in rags. I lied there without a stitch on. I had no fractured bones, so you can say they held back, given how brutal all Hunan prisons were.
Eventually I wised up and didn’t fight back at every goddamn turn. But there was one point I wouldn’t give way on: I was a political prisoner and RTL was not for me. After a while they also made sure an experienced inmate would be there to team up with me, set up the master-apprentice connection. The most I ever did was to stand by and watch the guy work. And then I would huddle in a corner, or chat up other prisoners.
LIAO: Were you held in Hengyang Prison the entire time?
YU ZHIJIAN: I was later transferred to Hunan No. 3 Prison, also known as Yongzhou Prison; Yu Dongyue was transferred to the No. 1 Prison, which specializes in locking up politicals. It’s got a reputation as the most savage prison in Hunan.
After 1992 I heard about Deng Xiaoping’s “Southern Tour,” and I really started analyzing it, concluding that, basically, China has entered the equivalent of the Soviet’s pre-Brezhnev era. We’re in for a long, dark ride. Around that time I also started feeling dark, and time passed slow.
But for all that, we still have to get by. I told the jailers that my specialty is teaching — so they took me out of the steel workshop and put me in a classroom. On a regular basis I gave literature classes to inmates, all the way until I was released.
LIAO: I guess that counts as a silver lining.
YU ZHIJIAN: Of the three, Lu Decheng was the luckiest. He fled from the Yunnan border to Thailand, even though he risked being picked up and sent back. But what Yu Dongyue went through was too cruel. On the day he was released, I called a few democrat friends to go pick him up. It never occurred to me that he’d be like a broken block of wood, completely another person from the radiant and joyful Yu Dongyue that I knew from before. I was yelling “Dong, dong, what’s going on? Don’t you recognize even me?” No reaction. When he did react, he’d suddenly drop to his knees and clutch my legs, yelling “spare my life! spare me!” I felt like someone had stuck a knife in my heart and twisted it. The June 4 incident is just too much. The historians and political scientists can worry about a comprehensive examination of it. What I’ve never been able to shake all this time has been Yu Dongyue. I’ve always felt that I’ve the one who ruined him.
LIAO: I read some reports on the internet about what happened. People in China and abroad have been raising funds for his medical care. How is he doing now? He doesn’t even recognize you? That’s incredible.
YU ZHIJIAN: He doesn’t even know himself. If you ask him, “Who is Yu Dongyue?” he just gives you a blank stare. He can’t recall.
YU ZHIJIAN: Nobody knows what kind of hell and trauma he went through in jail. There’s no saying they didn’t give him some kind of drug in there. You know how even today so many people worship Mao still; a lot of taxis have Mao’s portrait hanging over the driver’s seat as a talisman.
LIAO: Will how he lost his mind stay an unsolved mystery?
YU ZHIJIAN: Hard to say. There were so many other prisoners in Yongzhou with him, it shouldn’t be that hard to find out who the perpetrators were. Just recently, Public Security put me away in criminal detention for 32 days on charges of incitement to subversion, after I published a handful of ‘reactionary’ pieces on the internet. After I came out, I took a short break for a couple of days, then went to visit Dongyue at his home 70 kilometers outside the township. Well, his mood is a bit more stable now since he’s been out so long, so he doesn’t kneel in front of whoever happens to walk through the door anymore. But his eyes are still dazed, and you can’t talk loud around him, or he gives a shiver and falls on his knees again. His family is constantly trying to help him get his memory back, talking about so-and-so from what year, and this or that neighbor. For a moment it would look like he realizes who he is, but then he’d turn around and forget right away. It’s like One Hundred Years of Solitude by Marquez — all the characters live by themselves in this dreamed-up space. Dongyue used to think the world of that book; none of us knew he would one day end up in it.
Occasionally I’d take him with me when people in the movement met up. Look at this photo, there, the one in the middle, that’s him. Even when photos were being taken he’d be muttering along, and it’s like there is absolutely nothing in front of him, and he’s aware of no one around him.
LIAO: Quite a festive-looking picture you’ve got there. Who are all these people?
YU ZHIJIAN: My wedding. A lot of democrats came to celebrate.
LIAO: Congratulations! How do you plan to make your living now that you’re married?
YU ZHIJIAN: I’m not sure. To sum it up, we’ve got no house, no pension, insurance and such. Chugging along on luck. Our primary source of income right now is tutoring. The number of my students goes up and down so it’s not stable. Average income each month is less than a thousand yuan.
LIAO: Have you ever thought about going abroad?
YU ZHIJIAN: What for?
LIAO: Freedom. This country is run by such a band of thugs.
YU ZHIJIAN: But at the end of the day this is the land where I was born and raised. I can’t go through with breaking away.
LIAO: You have a great attitude.
YU ZHIJIAN: No one can rob me of my inner freedom. As far as things at home go, you’re always going to rub each other the wrong way here and there. But romantic love, the love of your family and friends — these are our eternal verities. I’m slowly adapting to the world out there. We’re all average nobodies who have to roll with the punches. But compared to the other average nobodies we’ve got our June Fourth complex that you can’t rub out, so we still have the impulse to take on the fears the government hangs over everyone’s heads.
LIAO: What is your biggest fear?
YU ZHIJIAN: The future. I don’t see a future for our people, our society. Will the price we paid, the hot blood that spurred us on, dwindle to nothing, a mere joke? Is our fight to stamp the memory of those who come after us a self-indulgent wish, doomed to failure? It may well be that the very fact we ever existed inconveniences those who are feted and successful whenever and wherever. (Sighs). Let’s let it go. Got to get by first. Thinking too hard about these things gives you a headache.
LIAO: Are you planning to have a child?
YU ZHIJIAN: Hard to afford. Not in the cards for now.
Translated from Chinese by Louisa Chiang. This interview is part of Liao Yiwu’s book Bullets and Opium (《子弹鸦片》), which has yet to be published in English.
Foreword to ‘The Martial Law Troops of June Fourth’, May 29, 2017.
The Historian of the Tiananmen Movement and the June Fourth Massacre – An Interview With Wu Renhua (Part One of Two), June 3, 2016.
The Historian of the Tiananmen Movement and the June Fourth Massacre – An Interview With Wu Renhua (Part Two of Two), June 4, 2016.
How the Tiananmen Massacre Changed China, and the World, Hu Ping, June 2, 2015.