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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.


A Joint Donation Drive for Gao Yu

By Humanitarian China and China Change, published: April 26, 2015

Humanitarian China will match your donation, as it did in the Ilham Tohti drive, and send twice as much as it receives to the family of Gao Yu.


A file photo of Chinese journalist Gao Yu speaking at a press conference in Hong Kong. AFP via RFA

A file photo of Chinese journalist Gao Yu speaking at a press conference in Hong Kong. AFP via RFA

On April 17, Beijing Municipal Third Intermediary People’s Court sentenced 71-year-old independent Chinese journalist Gao Yu (高瑜) to 7 years in prison for “leaking state secrets to foreign contacts,” provoking a domestic and international outcry and condemnation. The state secrets in question are the infamous Document No. 9 of the Chinese Communist Party that seeks to prohibit discussions in China of constitutional democracy, universal values, civil society, ideas of free market economy, press freedom, historical errors of the Party, and the ills of socialism with Chinese characteristics. These are known as the Seven Don’t Mentions. The barbaric nature of this document is apparent, and any principled journalist or citizen should reveal it and oppose it. As a matter of fact, long before Gao Yu, the document had been widely talked about online and offline, inside and outside of China. Such a Party document, aimed at handcuffing the otherwise vibrant Chinese society, has no basis to constitute a “state secret.”

However, in dictatorial China where the rule of law is but a prop, what is, or is not, a state secret is arbitrarily decided by the Party. But even if this document is a secret, the prosecutors had no evidence to prove that Gao Yu passed it on to overseas contacts, and Gao Yu was convicted based on the “public confessions” she had made under duress on CCTV. As such, the sentence of Gao Yu is clearly a reprisal against a courageous journalist and freedom of the press.  And it is a redoubled provocation against the universal concept of justice, and part of Xi Jinping’s systematic suppression of the press, the internet, the dissent, and the civil society.

Gao Yu was born in Chongqing in 1944 and graduated from the Chinese Language Department of Renmin University of China in 1967. She became a journalist with the state-owned China News in 1980, and in 1988, she became the deputy editor-in-chief of the Economics Weekly (《經濟學周報》), a liberal-leaning paper that was shut down after the Tiananmen Movement in 1989. This is Gao Yu’s third time in jail. She was secretly detained on June 3rd, 1989, for 450 days. In November, 1994, because of her writings for the Mirror magazine in Hong Kong, she was sentenced by Beijing Municipal Intermediary Court to 6 years in prison for “leaking state secrets.”

As one of the few fearless independent journalists in China, Gao Yu has won broad international recognition. She was awarded the Golden Pen of Freedom Award by the World Association of Newspapers and News Publishers in 1995. The international Women’s Media Foundation twice awarded Gao Yu the Courage in Journalism Award in 1995 and 2006. And, she was the first laureate (1997) of UNESCO’s annual World Press Freedom Prize.

Gao Yu suffers from hypertension, heart disease, and Meniere’s disease. Since losing her job in the state system, she has depended on her reporting for a living that’s too often constrained. She has had only minimal medical insurance, and has no pension or welfare benefits. Gao Yu is in urgent need of help to relieve her of financial difficulties so that she can receive adequate and effective treatment and nutrition (in China’s prisons, relatives and friends must make deposits for prisoners so that the latter can purchase food and supplies that are often overpriced).

Out of humanitarian considerations, Humanitarian China and China Change are simultaneously launching this joint donation drive for Gao Yu. Humanitarian China, founded by Zhou Fengsuo (周鋒鎖) and friends in 2007, is a small non-profit charity in the Bay Area in California. It has for years devoted to helping struggling prisoners of conscience and their families with small relief funds. In 2014, Humanitarian China provided relief for nearly 100 people, and its donation drive for the Uighur scholar Ilham Tohti garnered a total of more than $10,000 and the funds were delivered to Ilham’s family. was launched on June 4th, 2013, an English-language website dedicated to reporting on human rights, rule of law, and civil society in China. The website has translated multiple articles by Gao Yu, and her article Xi Jinping the Man was the first to unveil what kind of leader Xi Jinping is in January, 2013. It is one of the most read posts on this website.

But your contribution is more than just humanitarian. It is also a token of opposition to political tyranny in China.

Humanitarian China will match your donation, as it did in the Ilham Tohti drive, and send twice as much as it receives to the family of Gao Yu.

You may choose check, credit card, or PayPal to make a donation. You can also make a completely anonymous contribution through a secure third party. Please visit for details.

The donation drive will end on June 4th, 2015. We thank you for your kindness and generosity.


Humanitarian China

China Change




人道中國暨China Change, 2015年4月26日





作為中國少有的不畏強暴的獨立記者之一,高瑜女士得到了廣泛的國際認可和褒獎。她曾獲得國際報業發行人協會的“自由金筆獎” (1995),國際婦女媒體基金會的“新聞勇氣獎”(1995和2006),以及聯合國教科文組織的“吉耶爾莫卡諾新聞自由獎”(1997)。


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Beijing Observation: Xi Jinping the Man

By Gao Yu, published: January 26, 2013

A speech lifts the smog over the man.  


Gao Yu (高瑜) is an independent journalist and columnist based in Beijing. She used to work for China News Agency (中新社), and later was the deputy editor-in-chief of Economics Weekly (《经济学周报》, 1982-1989). She was twice imprisoned for her participation in the 1989 democratic movement. Drawing on her access to exclusive sources, she writes among other things about Beijing’s inner political circles, and her work is influential. The Chinese original is here.

Soon after the New Year passed, thick smog shrouded much of the eastern and central China for days on end and struck terror into  people. “Ducking into the dark brownish smog,” a netizen penned on Weibo, “I was suffocated all of a sudden. I couldn’t breathe, so I headed to the hospital.”

Politically, Beijing has been shrouded in smog too, catching heightened attention inside and outside China. Last Thursday (Jan. 17), in a public lecture titled “China in Transition” at Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, National University of Singapore, Harvard professor Roderick MacFarquhar predicted that the likelihood of CCP reforming from within was very small, and reform would probably only be triggered by external, large-scale and eruptive events. (While I can’t seem to find a link to his lecture, readers may read this piece to find a similar assessment by the Professor – Yaxue)

As if to clear up the political smog, Xi Jinping’s “new southern tour speech,” made in early December, began its circulation last week in the party. To my surprise, Xi’s speech reads like a perfect confirmation to MacFarquhar’s prediction. The new leadership’s “honeymoon” is hardly over, but it has already become clear that the Party and the people don’t share the same “China Dream,” as the Southern Weekend incident has abundantly indicated.

The most striking part of Xi Jinping’s “new southern tour speech” is his revisiting the topic of the Soviet Union’s collapse. He said, “Why did the Soviet Union disintegrate? Why did the Soviet Communist Party collapse? An important reason was that their ideals and beliefs had been shaken. In the end, ‘the ruler’s flag over the city tower’ changed overnight. It’s a profound lesson for us! To dismiss the history of the Soviet Union and the Soviet Communist Party, to dismiss Lenin and Stalin, and to dismiss everything else is to engage in historic nihilism, and it confuses our thoughts and undermines the Party’s organizations on all levels.”

“Why must we stand firm on the Party’s leadership over the military?” Xi continued, “because that’s the lesson from the collapse of the Soviet Union. In the Soviet Union where the military was depoliticized, separated from the Party and nationalized, the party was disarmed. A few people tried to save the Soviet Union; they seized Gorbachev, but within days it was turned around again, because they didn’t have the instruments to exert power. Yeltsin gave a speech standing on a tank, but the military made no response, keeping so-called ‘neutrality.’ Finally, Gorbachev announced the disbandment of the Soviet Communist Party in a blithe statement. A big Party was gone just like that. Proportionally, the Soviet Communist Party had more members than we do, but nobody was man enough to stand up and resist.”

“Nobody was man enough”! How vividly this captures Xi Jinping’s anxiety over the fall of the Soviet Communist Party and the collapse of the Soviet Union!

In his inauguration speech on September 19, 2004, when he succeeded Jiang Zemin to become the Chairman of the Central Military Committee, Hu Jintao also railed against Gorbachev as “the chief culprit of Eastern Europe’s transformation and a traitor of socialism.” “Because of the openness and pluralism he championed,” Hu said, “Gorbachev caused confusion among the Soviet Communist Party and the people of the Soviet Union. The Party and the Union fell apart under the impact of ‘westernization’ and ‘bourgeois liberalism’ that he implemented.”

At the time, Hu Jintao’s speech was distributed to every party member as a document of the party’s Central Committee, and many people found it unbelievable that Hu had said that, for, like the anti-fascist victory of World War II, the collapse of the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe had already been recognized as one of the greatest legacies of the 20th century.

I believe Xi Jinping’s new southern tour speech will shock many party members, let alone outside observers and the public in general. As the son of one of Communist China’s founding generals, Xi’s speech reflects a lot of his mindset and highlights his political ambition. On the one hand, he wants to maintain the life of the CCP regime; on the other, he wants to revamp the house in the hope of restoring the kind of authority and legitimacy Mao Zedong enjoyed at the beginning of the communist China. Such are the guiding principles, and the destination, of his “road to renewal.”

MacFarquhar was very insightful when he pointed out that the vested interests were so entrenched in the party’s corrupt system, and Xi Jinping doesn’t want to become China’s Gorbachev by taking risk to reform, for it could trigger upheavals and lead to the fall of the regime.

Xi Jinping didn’t mention “political reform” in the new southern tour speech. In fact, he has not made any reference to it since after the 18th Party’s Congress. Instead, in his southern tour speech, he laid out his ideological bedrocks: “Only socialism can save China. Only (economic) reform and opening-up can develop China, develop socialism, and develop Marxism.”

Right now, the Chinese government is the wealthiest government in the world, and that’s the source of the “three confidences” (“confidence in direction, confidence in theoretic foundation, and confidence in system”) that Xi Jinping recently voiced. In his first stop of the southern tour, Xi paid respect to Deng Xiaoping, “the general designer of China’s reform and opening-up,” but also the creator of China’s crony capitalism over the last three decades. What Deng Xiaoping established in his southern tour speech 21 years ago is a lame-legged reform path, and it has been the underlying cause of rampant corruption and mounting social crises.

But it doesn’t look like Xi Jinping wants to acknowledge this. Not yet anyway. He said, “Our reform has always been a thorough reform. I don’t agree with the idea that China’s reform has been falling behind in some regard. It might be quicker or slower in some ways and at some points, but all in all, there is no such thing that China has changed in this way but not in that way. The key is what to reform and what not to reform. There are things we have not changed, things we cannot change, and things we will not change no matter in how long a time passes. And it cannot be characterized as failure to reform.”

So, what are the things that cannot be changed? Xi Jinping said, “Some people define reform as changes towards the universal values of the west, the western political system, or it will not constitute “real” reform. This is a stealthy tampering of the concept and a misunderstanding of our reform. Of course we must uphold the banner of reform, but our reform is reform that keeps us moving forward on the path of socialism with Chinese characteristics. We will walk neither the closed and rigid old path, nor the evil path of changing the flag.”

In his lecture, MacFarquhar said that, because of corruption from top to bottom, the CCP has lost the kind of authority and legitimacy it had in the early years of Mao’s new China; while Deng Xiaoping’s focus on mere economic reform after the Cultural Revolution has led to the absence of an ideology that can unite the people and the Party.

How to deal with the Party’s debilitating illness, and how to rouse the party members’ will to reform? Xi Jinping said, “We must see clearly our place in history, see clearly the realistic goals as well as the long-term vision to which we are devoted. We are still in the early stage of socialism, and we must do whatever we can to realize the goals of the current stage. But if we lose sight of our vision as communists, we will lose our direction and succumb to utilitarianism and pragmatism. To uphold our ideals and beliefs, we must uphold Marxism-Leninism, Mao Zedong thoughts, Deng Xiaoping theory, the important contribution of the “three represents”, and the Scientific Outlook on Development. The great renewal of the Chinese nation has been the greatest dream of the Chinese nation over the last couple of hundred years. The ‘China dream’ is an ideal. But of course, as communists, we should have a higher ideal, and that is, communism.”

With the new southern tour speech, Xi Jinping clearly intended to give the CCP ideology a renewed status.

During the southern tour, Xi Jinping told everyone an old story that was related in an article titled The Taste of Faith in People’s Daily on November 27, 2012. In 1920, as Chen Wangdao (陈望道) translated the Manifesto of the Communist Party, his mother once served him glutinous rice dumplings and a small dip of brown sugar. “Is the brown sugar enough?” she called out from outside, checking on him. “Sweet enough! Sweet enough!” Chen answered. Then when his mother cleaned up the dishes, she found that he dipped not the brown sugar but the ink. “That was the taste of faith! That is the power of faith!” The article exclaimed.

Let’s just believe it’s a true story. Does the party still have such translators? I’m afraid, listening to the story, the party members would be thinking about Yi Junqing (衣俊卿), the recently dismissed chief of the party’s Central Compilation and Translation Bureau.  The rumor has it that the “three confidences,” which have been written into the official report of the 18th Party’s Congress, were the invention of Yi Junqing through a billion-yuan project called the “Project of Theoretical Research and the Construction of Marxism.” I heard that people who had tried to protect him cited this particular accomplishment, but I wonder how are the party members going to relish the “taste of faith” next to that 120,000-word exposé of pornography, money and power?