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The Fate of Press Freedom in China’s Era of ‘Reform and Opening up’:  An Interview With Chang Ping

December 15, 2016

Yaxue Cao spoke with Chang Ping in Toronto on December 2, 2016.




YC: You used to be the director of the news department of the famed Southern Weekly and a columnist there, and you belong to a community of journalists who distinguished themselves in the 25 years of “market-oriented” media that coincided with the period of soaring economic development from early 1990s until recently. I’ve been wanting to hear your story, because I sensed that your trajectory as a journalist has also been the trajectory of China’s “market-oriented media.” So I’m very happy to see you. First of all, congratulations on receiving the CJFE International Press Freedom Award. They made a great choice.

Chang Ping: Thank you.

YC: I knew you were a 1989er, but I only learned yesterday, from watching the CJFE video, that you were detained for a month after the June 4th Massacre. Tell us a bit about your experience in 1989. Where were you?

Chang Ping: I was a sophomore at Sichuan University, majoring in Chinese Literature. In Chengdu, as in Beijing, college students took to the streets to protest, staged hunger strikes in the public square downtown, and held dialogues with the provincial government. I was involved in organizing some of these activities. After the crackdown, I was detained for a month and severely disciplined.

YC: How did you become a journalist?

Chang Ping: I wanted to be a novelist, and never thought much about journalism. I didn’t have a job after the June 4th protest, nor did I care for a career in the system. I stumbled on my first media job by accident: in Chengdu, a boss and I, just two of us, started a business intelligence magazine. That was 1991, the year before Deng Xiaoping’s Southern Tour. With scissors and glue, I cut out what I thought was useful business information and arranged it in categories such as policy, law, overseas information, etc. Back then it was still hot metal typesetting, and I had to go to the factory to set the characters with workers. In Chengdu region, small and medium businesses really needed that kind of information. Very soon we had a lot of subscribers. I had first-hand knowledge that, before Deng’s Southern Tour, the commercial impetus at the bottom half of society was already bubbling up. So for me, it wasn’t a surprise at all when, in 1992, the economy kickstarted after Deng’s tour. I also edited a book with the title “The Swelling Commercial Tides.”   

After a while I quit the magazine and wrote short stories that were published in a journal called Young Writers. Some were recommended to the then-famous literary magazine Harvest. An editor asked me to revise my story, but I was so proud back then that I told him I wouldn’t change a word. At the same time I also compiled historical storybooks for young readers.

After 1992, the government began to push for market reforms. Some government-owned publications were outsourced. I leased a paper called Market Herald (《市场导报》), I was the deputy editor-in-chief, but the de facto editor-in-chief. But I loved reporting on everyday life, so I went out and wrote about, for example, Chengdu’s river channel improvement project, the living conditions of the blind, etc. The paper wasn’t making any money, so after two months it couldn’t go on. Right around that time, Chengdu Commercial Daily (《成都商报》)  was founded by He Huazhang (何华章), and I joined as part of the earliest team, in charge of social reporting. Later I also edited the front page, and was one of the editorial managers.

Chengdu Commercial Daily pursued a vernacular style. Our reports, even some headlines, were written in everyday Sichuan dialect. When reporting the annual Two Sessions in Beijing, all newspapers had the same headlines as the People’s Daily, something like “The National People’s Congress Solemnly Opens in Beijing,” while our headline was simply, “NPC Held Meeting.” We were criticized for being not serious.

YC: Indeed, revolt often begins from aesthetics and taste.

Chang Ping: Chengdu Commercial Daily was an immediate success and made a lot of money. A year later, the municipal Party propaganda department took it into their hands as their own cultural achievement. Later, the paper formed a media group by consolidating with the Chengdu Evening News, which had been the leading paper of the city, a radio station, a TV station, and literary magazines, and was listed on China’s stock exchanges.

As Chengdu Commercial Daily became more and more mainstream, meaning more and more like the Party’s mouthpieces, my difference with other editors widened. I remember in early 1998 when the rock singer Cui Jian (崔健) issued “The Power of the Powerless,” I sent a reporter in Beijing to interview Cui and he talked about the difficulty of revolt. The propaganda department was very unhappy about it and chided me harshly. My commentaries were also criticized for “promoting a capitalist view of the press.”     

Another event was the death of Deng Xiaoping in 1997. We had never experienced anything like that and didn’t know how to report it. But all Chinese held the wisdom that you can’t mess around with this, and you must do whatever People’s Daily does. You have to use the standard script issued by Xinhua News — but how do we design the page? We studied how papers reported Mao Zedong’s death, what font and what size of font were used for headlines. As the Party’s mouthpiece in Sichuan, the Sichuan Daily had no pressure; they simply waited for the phototypesetting of People’s Daily that was sent to all over the country — at that point it was phototypesetting printing. Our pressure came from the market. We wanted to publish early. So the editor-in-chief came up with an idea. He went to the printing factory and cheated out the phototypesetting of the People’s Daily. The next day, Chengdu Commercial Daily was the first paper in the city with the news. We were so happy about our cleverness!

About a week later, I saw a weekend paper from Guangzhou. On the left it was a large photo of Deng Xiaoping, on the right the headline was simply “Mr. Deng Passed Away.” The text below was also Xinhua’s standard announcement, the same as everyone else. I was rather shocked: what we thought was creative and smart was really nothing; we were just toadying.

I didn’t want to stay in Chengdu anymore. I met with Shen Hao (沈灏), the news director of Southern Weekly (《南方周末》), who was in Chengdu on business. He wanted me to join the rising Southern Weekly. So I did.

YC: Shen Hao was sentenced to four years in prison last year and paraded on CCTV giving “self-confessions.”  

Chang Ping: He Huazhang has also been also detained. He was working at Sichuan People’s Publishing House in 1989. His career stalled because he joined the protests. He left the state system to found Chengdu Commercial Daily. The success of the paper catapulted him to hero status in China’s market reforms. He returned to government and became head of the municipal Party propaganda department and deputy mayor. He was taken into custody by the CCDI, the Party’s disciplinary committee, following the fall of Zhou Yongkang (周永康). He’s been in detention for a year or two already without trial. Many Party officials are in the same situation: no legal procedures are applied to them, and there’s no news reporting on them.

YC: Southern Weekly attracted a lot of young and idealistic reporters.

Chang Ping: At Southern Weekly, I reported on local government corruption, and environmental degradation. In 1998, there were floods across China. Jiang Zemin (江泽民) and Zhu Rongji (朱镕基) stood in the Yangtze River and reporting abounded. Southern Weekly made a plan to investigate the cause of the flood along the Yangtze River, beginning from the Tibetan plateau. Most of our series were observations: deforestation and soil erosion. I wrote similar things too, but I wasn’t satisfied. I wanted to look for stories. In Barkam (马尔康), northern Sichuan, I found a tree feller who had been honored for years as a model feller. He told me, “Now I feel the flood has something to do with me.” I wrote a report titled “The Last Model Feller,” because my sense was that there would be no more model fellers anymore, and it was a big success.    

But soon Southern Weekly was “rectified.” Shen Hao was removed, and columnist Yan Lieshan (鄢烈山) and editor Cao Xihong (曹西弘) were censored.

YC: Why the rectification?

Chang Ping: Shen Hao organized a lot of reporting on the dark side of society — for example, publishing illustration of the varieties of torture police used to extract confessions. Yan Lieshan was an essayist well known for incisive criticism. Cao Xihong was the first to investigate the dark secrets of the railway and communication industries that the state monopolized.

After the rectification, I was appointed first the deputy director, and then the director, of the news department. I was responsible for news planning, page layout, and the deployment of reporters and editors. I also edited the front page, the Reporter’s Observations page, and the investigations page. Almost every weekend, I’d go out for stories, and I reported on judicial corruption, pollution, women’s rights, gay rights, and more.  

At the time we tried to record changes in Chinese society using methods from anthropology and sociology. For example, we chose a village, a township, and a street in the heartland, the West, and the coast respectively — our plan was to revisit the same place at the end of every year for ten years to record its changes. I was forced to leave Southern Weekly three years later, but the editors and reporters continued and completed the plan. Ten years later, they published a book titled Here and There: A Report on the Transformation of Grassroots China (《这儿与那儿:中国转型期基层调查》).

YC: I’ll find that and take a look.

Chang Ping: I’ve always wanted to be an independent voice. At that time the majority of the journalists and commentators with dissenting views went about it by latching their own ideas onto those already in the air. For instance they’d take the “Three Represents” (三个代表) and try to explain the positive aspect of the theory, and then add in their own understanding: “Only by moving towards democracy, rule of law, and liberty will the will of the people be truly represented.” But I look at things differently. I am extremely sensitive to language. Words are not just a means of expression, they are the expression in and of itself. So if you even use “Three Represents” or similar slogans, you’re doing propaganda for it, no matter how much you try to smuggle in your own stuff. Also with Falun Gong — we were required to write about it as a political task, but we stubbornly resisted. We basically didn’t do any reports, whether good or bad. I got accused by some people of “rejecting the mainstream.”

In the spring of 2001 there was the case of Zhang Jun (张君), who for a while was a notorious triad boss. He robbed banks, killed cops, and had a record throughout Hubei, Hunan, and Chongqing, and of course had numerous mistresses. It had all the ingredients of a Hollywood movie. He was caught by Chongqing Public Security Bureau led by Wen Qiang (文强). In a photo, Wen had him on the ground, one foot on his face, and announced: “Zhang Jun is under my foot.” Wen Qiang, of course, was later executed by Bo Xilai (薄熙来) for protecting the mafia.

YC: And then Bo Xilai was himself jailed by Xi Jinping. In the Communist Party’s autocratic politics, anyone in the system can just be peeled off like a layer of cabbage — no one’s safe. Who’s to say that, in a few year’s time, Xi Jinping won’t be the one in jail?

Chang Ping: The capture of Zhang Jun was a big grand achievement for Chongqing public security — a chance for them to really bignote and back-slap themselves. They organized a lot of interviews, and a CCTV crew also went to interview Zhang Jun face-to-face in the detention center. I was mulling over how we should cover the case at Southern Weekly. Media around the country were running the story front page every day, and we were a weekly publication, so we were already a bit behind. I sent journalists to write a piece about how Zhang Jun grew up. It was titled: “Exploring the Zhang Jun Case: The Rise of a Brutal Syndicate” (《张君案检讨 – 一个极端暴力集团的成长》). It traced the story of how a simple village kid who left home to become a migrant worker in the end became the head of a triad group. It also scrutinized the operations of China’s criminal justice organs. As Zhang Jun himself put it, every time he entered prison, he came out worse. The article sent shockwaves through Hunan and Chongqing. Party bosses there wrote a letter to the Central Propaganda Department, saying Southern Weekly could even turn such a monumental achievement of law enforcement into a smear against socialism, against rural policies, and against the public security agencies.

In the autumn of 2001 Southern Weekly was “rectified” once again, after four articles we published were specifically called out and criticized. Editors and journalists were moved on and sacked. One of the four was the Zhang Jun investigation, and of the other three, one was about a cemetery for Red Guards who died in the Cultural Revolution, called “A Chongqing Cemetery Buries the Cultural Revolution’s Young Warriors” (《青春墓地埋葬重庆文革武斗》). Another was about a massive explosion in the city of Shijiazhuang, where the censors thought we’d just reported too many details. The last was a commentary about the situation in the Middle East, which made the key point that dictatorship is the source of turmoil in that region.

After those four articles were specifically named as problematic, I was removed, the editor-in-chief Jiang Yiping (江艺平) was transferred, and the deputy editor-in-chief was also transferred out. That was also the biggest turning point for Southern Weekly. I was transferred to be the deputy general manager of the circulation department — so I hadn’t actually been fired. They gave me a job title and salary, but no work.

YC: So it was just about two years after the previous “rectification.”

Chang Ping: Right. It was a time when independent voices won an unprecedented level of prestige for Southern Weekly, and it brought so much space for the imagination in freedom of speech and political reform in China. The paper also became a model that journalists and editors around China aspired to emulate. Many pro-reform scholars and lawyers were also very supportive. But it was all along also a target of repression.

YC: How many pages was the newspaper then?

Chang Ping: At the beginning it was 8, then we doubled, and then went to 24 pages. Sometimes we also added pages, and there were also experimental pages. On the professional side, Southern Weekly was really at the vanguard for trying new things, and it brought together so many people in the industry who had ideals, in particular many brilliant writers in the field. Our reports were very carefully done, and the writing was always well-crafted. Layout was exceptional, too — when I became the director of news, I put a lot of energy into photography and page design.

I left soon after I lost my editorial position. CCTV had just begun a new channel, 12, and I was invited to be the editor of a talk show. I did that for two months, so I gained some understanding of CCTV. But I simply couldn’t stand the culture there. I had to get out. In 2002, with friends from Chengdu and Guangzhou, we founded The Bund (《外滩画报》) in Shanghai. Shanghai is a city with extremely strict ideological controls — there’s a certain lifelessness about it. We hoped to inject some vitality into the place, but from the beginning we were put under strict monitoring and control. We hardly had space to operate. In 2003 I accepted an offer from the University of California, Berkeley, for a one year visiting scholarship. After I returned I went back to The Bund as deputy chief editor. In 2005 the propaganda department was unhappy with the job our official supervisor, the Shanghai Literature and Art Publishing House (上海文艺出版社), was doing keeping us in line, and they forced them to sell us to the Wenhui Xinmin United Press Group (文新集团). They didn’t want to buy, and we didn’t want to sell, but the deal went through regardless.

YC: It sounds similar to what happened recently with Yanhuang Chunqiu.

Chang Ping: Right. The Bund is still around, though it’s now turned into a fashion magazine. In 2005 I returned to Guangzhou and rejoined the Southern Group, running Southern Metropolis Weekly (《南都周刊》) as the deputy chief editor in charge of daily operations.

Southern Metropolis Weekly is a magazine of urbanized China — it focuses on civil society, the environment, women’s rights, and issues related to rights movements, ideas, culture, and so on. It’s relatively moderate in tone compared to Southern Weekly, but it’s still been hit with a lot of criticism by the authorities.

In the midst of all this, I also started writing a syndicated column, commenting on current affairs and culture. In April 2008 I published a commentary in the Chinese version of Financial Times titled: “Tibet: Nationalist Sentiment and the Truth” (《“西藏:真相与民族主义情绪”》). This was after the March 14 unrest in Tibet, where official media failed to carry any substantial reports, while social media and a number of websites let loose with a barrage of criticism against CNN, BBC, and other foreign media, accusing them of false reporting. In the piece, I wrote that if their concerns were really about news values, they shouldn’t be exclusively focused on exposing the misreporting of the Western press, but should also be calling into question the information found in the Chinese media, and the strict controls over the press in China. The latter deals far greater damage to the media environment than the former, the column argued. I also suggested that the narrow-minded Han nationalism common in China should be carefully examined. That article stirred up a tempest, and websites like China Online, KDnet, Utopia, and a few other Han nationalist sites pinned it on top of the page, and went into overdrive hyping it up. Just a single one of these forum posts got several hundred thousand hits, with tens of thousands of comments, most of them attacking me. Some people even threatened that they’d harm me and my family.

At the time too there was a Duke University student, Grace Wang (王千源), who during a campus demonstration was accused of supporting Tibetan independence. She was attacked by Chinese students at Duke, and her parents in China were attacked too. Her parents had to move into a hotel for their own safety, after attackers left feces at their door.

Beijing Evening News (《北京晚报》) took the rare step of publishing an article directly attacking me, called “Chang Ping Is a Rumormonger” (《造谣自由的南都长平》). The author, Mei Ninghua (梅宁华), writing under the pseudonym “Pen Spear” (文锋) was the president of Beijing Daily [the official mouthpiece of the Beijing municipal propaganda department]. His article caused an uproar. This dispute was the opening volley in a five year-long running debate about universal values, which Xi Jinping shut down in 2013.

Because of this I was again removed from my post, and prohibited from doing any work in the newsroom. They transferred me to the Southern Media Group’s research institute. But I kept writing columns for Southern Weekly and Southern Metropolis Daily (《南方都市报》). After six months those columns were also brought to a halt. They told me that if I agreed to stop writing, I might be able to keep my job. I refused, and kept publishing current affairs commentary in other outlets. At the end of 2010 the propaganda department demanded that the Southern Media Group completely cut off all association with me.

Newspapers, websites, and publishing houses around the country were from that point on prohibited from publishing or printing my articles or books, and websites were ordered to delete my previously-published articles and author information. At that point I had a large number of readers, and a lot of websites syndicated my blog, even real estate websites carried my column. It wasn’t me updating them. I saw myself disappearing from the internet before my own eyes — they weren’t only not publishing me, but erasing my existence. For a while, it was hard to even find my name online.

YC: It’s terrifying when you think about it. As long as they want to do it, they can make someone disappear. They can also make history, or reality, disappear. Even a journalist such as yourself can turn into such a nightmare for them, so much so that they want to expunge you completely.

When the wave of arrests in spring 2011 took place during the so-called Jasmine Revolution, what were you doing?

Chang Ping: I was a visiting scholar at Hong Kong Baptist University, and like a lot of mainlanders who came to Hong Kong to study, I went home on the weekends. Someone said to me at one point: You shouldn’t go back. Apart from writing my columns, I don’t do anything else — so should I follow this instruction and not go home? I didn’t want to be intimidated. It just so happened that right at that time I received an invitation to go to France for a forum. A number of others, including Yu Hua (余华), Zhan Jiang (展江), and Yu Jianrong (于建嵘), also participated. When I was in Paris, police in China came to my home to arrest me.

When I went back I remained in Hong Kong and helped found iSun Affairs (《阳光时务》.)

YC: iSun Affairs was a publication with serious ambition, and it brought together so many talented people, including yourself and Cheng Yizhong (程益中), who also worked for years in the Southern newspapers. iSun’s reporting on Wukan (乌坎), in particular, left a deep impression on me. You were chief editor at the time, but a lot of people may not realize that you were in Germany and had turned your schedule upside-down to work remotely. What happened there?

Chang Ping: I never expected it, but the Hong Kong government dragged out the approval of my work visa for two years (and in the end, rather than say that they  had “rejected” it, they simply said that they “were no longer processing it.”) They came up with all sorts of reasons for investigating me, including an absurd attempt to establish whether or not I had taught illegally when I was a visiting scholar at Hong Kong Baptist University. As soon as they did this, it was clear that I couldn’t return to mainland China. With a PRC passport I could stay in Hong Kong for seven days at a time, so every weekend I flew to neighboring countries for “vacation,” including Malaysia, Indonesia, and Cambodia. After two months of that, Hong Kong immigration personnel told me that I couldn’t stay in Hong Kong like that — I would have to return to China or else the next time I arrived, there’d be trouble. So I never went back. After I received an invitation from the Heinrich Böll Foundation, I went from Cambodia to Germany.

Thanks to the support of my Hong Kong colleagues, I was able to stay on as the chief editor of iSun Affairs, working from Germany, for the next two years. But it also was extremely difficult, and the magazine was banned in China. In the end, we parted ways. I stayed in Germany and continued writing commentary for publications in Germany, Hong Kong, and Taiwan, and continued to address the Chinese authorities’ repression.

YC: So in that case you haven’t been able to return to China since 2011. iSun Affairs had to shut down after a little over a year; one of the main investors, Chen Ping (陈平), was violently attacked in Hong Kong, Cheng Yizhong relocated to the United States, and you went to Germany. Later you wrote a column for Deutsche Welle and South China Morning Post, and got into an intense debate with another Deutsche Welle columnist, Frank Sieren, about the June 4 massacre. After SCMP was sold to Jack Ma, they immediately shut down your column. Earlier this year when the letters urging Xi Jinping to resign came out, your family in China was harassed.

Of course, the storied Southern Weekly is no more after the “Southern Weekly Incident” in January 2013. A great experiment has ended. 

In 1999 “Southern Weekly” published a very famous New Year’s dedication, titled “There is a power that moves us to tears,” which said in part: “May the powerless be empowered, and may the dispirited continue forward.” This line inspired a generation of aspiring media figures. Now in 2016, press freedom in China has not only failed to progress, but has regressed dramatically. Please share some final thoughts for our interview today.

Chang Ping: Many years ago we were very optimistic. At that time I believed that every step made in the news field would promote progress in Chinese society, and that every word we wrote contained power — even if it could only be measured in milligrams. Looking back now, I often feel quite dejected. China is going backwards in so many areas. But I have never doubted the value of fighting for freedom of expression. Even if there’s no tomorrow, we still need justice today. It’s just as I put it in my acceptance speech for this award in Toronto: freedom of expression is not merely necessary for all other freedoms, but speech itself is freedom.

I made the following line the signature for my blog and social media accounts for many years: “If criticism is not free, praise is meaningless.” A friend and I translated it from  the French: “Sans la liberté de blamer, il n’est point d’éloge flatteur.” It became popular and widely quoted in China, and made many people come to see how meaningless the Chinese government’s self-flattery is once it has gone around crushing all dissenting views. It makes us also see the value of critique, which was the goal of my being in the news and commentary field for so long. Now, I could disappear, but these ideas are already deeply rooted in the hearts and minds of the Chinese people.



Chang Ping (长平) lives in Germany. Follow him on Twitter @chang_ping

Yaxue Cao (曹雅学) edits this website. Follow her on Twitter @YaxueCao




China’s ‘Freedom’ Cage, by Chang Ping, 2015.

‘Speech Is Freedom Itself’ – Chang Ping’s Acceptance Speech for the CJFE 2016 International Press Freedom Award, December 1, 2016

The Virus of Censorship, by Cheng Yizhong, 2012.




Lawyers’ Account: Court in China Adds Last-Minute Charge in Heavy Sentence Against Rights Leader Guo Feixiong

China Change, published: November 27, 2015


Photo: New York Times

Photo: New York Times

On August 8, 2013, Guo Feixiong (郭飞雄, real name Yang Maodong [杨茂东]) was arrested and then indicted on charges of “gathering a crowd to disrupt order in a public place.” The case stems from Guo’s activism around the “Southern Weekend” incident, in which he made speeches outside the newspaper’s offices, and later that year he initiated a campaign demanding that the National People’s Congress ratify the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. On November 28 last year he and co-defendant Sun Desheng (孙德胜) were tried without a verdict. On Friday November 27, after three postponements over the course of 12 months, the Tianhe court in Guangzhou has pronounced its verdict, with Guo Feixiong sentenced to six years in prison.

The heavy sentence came as shock to everyone following the case. More shockingly, the court added a charge right in the courtroom in order, apparently, to deliver a heavier sentence. Li Jinxing (李金星), one of Guo’s two lawyers, posted online that, after the court had completed its questioning, judge Zheng Xin (郑昕) said that it is the opinion of the court that an additional charge should be added to the original “gathering a crowd to disrupt order of a public place”—that is, “picking quarrels and provoking trouble.” He demanded that the lawyers immediately provide a defense of this charge. The four lawyers (including two of co-defendant Sun Desheng’s counsel in the same case) objected in the strongest terms. “In terms of legal court procedure, when the Procuratorate has accused the defendant of one crime, the court can’t simply add another one, and sentence the person for two crimes,” Li Jinxing told Radio Free Asia in an interview. “I believe that the court’s action was simply to increase the sentence in total disregard for the law. I see this as one of the most ugly and preposterous precedents in judicial history. It is uncloaked political vendetta, false charges, and persecution of human rights defenders.”

Police vehicles arriving at the courthouse. Photo: Wang Yanfang

Police vehicles arriving at the courthouse. Photo: Wang Yanfang

After the sentence, Guo Feixiong’s other lawyer Zhang Lei told RFA that Guo Feixiong was sentenced to four years imprisonment on the charge of “gathering a crowd to disrupt order in a public place” and four years on the charge of “picking quarrels and provoking trouble,” which would be combined and commuted to six years. Sun Desheng was sentenced to 2.5 years on the latter charge. Both vowed to appeal. Guo Feixiong attempted to speak, believing that the decision was a case of naked political persecution of a democracy activist. Before he finished he was dragged out of the courtroom.

Zhang Lei told RFA: “Our request for the judge to recuse himself was denied; our request for time to prepare our defense was denied; our request that the court restart its session and that discuss the matter with the Procuratorate was completely ignored; and any attempt to even speak on our part was quickly stifled.” Before ten minutes were through, the judge declared that he’d heard the lawyers’ opinions and sent them outside the courtroom to wait. About ten minutes later the court re-opened and Guo Feixiong and Sun Desheng were brought in.”

While waiting for the verdict outside, Zhang Lei (张磊) wrote on social media: “I’m enraged! It’s just too ugly! They pretended to ask lawyers’ opinions, but did not let them speak. When any one of us spoke to provide a defense, judge Zheng Xin would forcibly cut us off and prevent us from speaking. Now he says that he’s already listened to and taken in our defense, and directs us to wait here until the court goes back in session!”

Zhang Lei said to RFA, “When Guo came in, he requested a medical examination for his hand, because on the way to the court he had been very badly injured by bailiffs. The court ignored this. When the lawyers further demanded that court protect the basic human rights of Guo Feixiong, and that he not be harmed during the court procedures, the court also ignored this. The sentencing judge today was cruel and imperious; soon after dismissing these requests he directly announced the sentences.”

Describing the scene outside the court, Zhang Lei told RFA that before they entered the courtroom they saw what looked like a few hundred police, including plainclothes officers. There were also diplomats and foreign journalists, but none were allowed into the courthouse. “We also saw other citizens gather around to observe, including [rights lawyer] Tang Jingling’s wife Wang Yanfang (汪艳芳). They were waiting outside the court the whole time, about 200 meters away from the courthouse. The street leading to the court had been blocked by police.”

Lawyer Zhang Lei added: “This is an extremely dark day in judicial history: when the prosecutors have not even brought the charge against the defendant, the court simply adds it to the crimes of the defendant, increasing their sentence length. This is a great scandal. It’s simply toying with the law, blaspheming the law.”

Diplomats barred from the court but stayed anyway, 200 meters away from the courthouse. Photo: Wang Yanfang

Diplomats barred from the court but stayed anyway, 200 meters away from the courthouse. Photo: Wang Yanfang, wife of Tang Jingling (far right)

Guo Feixiong was a pioneer in the rights defense movement in China since the early 2000s. In the seminal Taishi Village Incident in 2005, he ushered in the model of calling together a coalition of defense lawyers, media, public intellectuals, and activists to tackle a case. For his leadership in the incident, he was sentenced to prison for five years on trumped up charges. He was released in September of 2011, but was arrested again on August 8, 2013. He has since spent over 800 days in a packed prison cell without yard time as the Chinese authorities have unlawfully and purposefully deprived him of this simple prison right. It is a deliberate attempt to slowly kill Guo Feixiong.  

After the verdict was announced yesterday, dissident intellectual Mo Zhixu remarked: “Guo Feixiong united theory and practice. He has a lucid apprehension of totalitarian systems, and he’s optimistic about the effect of market reform as manifested in the emerging social classes and a fledgling civil society. On the one hand, he does his best to strike a moderate stance in order to attract as many people as possible, including those inside the system; on the other hand, his stance is resolute, and he seeks to stir new groups to promote change. His platform is moderate but his actions radical. His strategy is founded in opposition to the regime that can nonetheless attract the most number of people, and is geared towards action—an approach that has proven to be inspirational and infectious.”  

Zhang Lei reported on social media that, after the sentence was handed down on November 27, he saw Guo Feixiong in the afternoon, and read his opinion on the verdict: “A Final Response to the Sentence”  (《判决庭上的最后答复》) which he prepared in anticipation to the sentence but not the charge the court invented the last minute. You have used judicial institutions that should have been applied to uphold justice and safeguard human rights to frame innocent citizens, crush human rights and trample on the core interest of the Chinese nation — the cause of constitutional democracy,” he wrote.

Separately, he noted that in the list of “witnesses” in his judgements, a number were his friends, but there was nothing they said that was disadvantageous to his case, and he is grateful for their protecting him. To the friends who were implicated because of their association with Guo, he expressed his apologies.

Liu Yuandong, 37, and Sun Desheng, 32, were sentenced to 3 years and 2.5 years in prison respectively.

Roseann Rife, East Asia Research Director at Amnesty International, stated in reaction to the sentences: “Guo’s imprisonment shows that when the authorities want to silence activists, all the Chinese laws, regulations, and the government’s statements at the UN about guaranteeing human rights aren’t worth the paper they’re printed on.”



Chinese Rights Advocate Known as Guo Feixiong Is Shocked by Last-Minute Charge, the New York Time, November 27, 2015.  

Statement by Chinese Rights Campaigner Sentenced to 6 Years in Prison, translated by Vanessa Piao, November 27, 2015.   

Activist Guo Feixiong Held 743 Days Without Yard Time,  August 21, 2015.

Guo Feixiong, a Civil Rights Hero, by Xiao Shu, January 8, 2015

Guo Feixiong: The Sovereignty of the People – My Conviction and My Dream, November 28, 2014.

Guo Feixiong and Sun Desheng Indictment, July 7, 2015

To Obama – Why China Does Not Have a Nelson Mandela, by Yaxue Cao, September 23, 2015.


To Obama – Why China Does Not Have a Nelson Mandela

By Yaxue Cao, published: September 23, 2015


Huang Wenxun in Shenzhen, March 10, 2013.

Huang Wenxun in Shenzhen, March 10, 2013.

On March 31, when China’s youngest political criminal Huang Wenxun (黄文勋) heard that Xi Jinping was going to visit America, he wrote President Obama a letter. He had just turned 25, and had been held in a police lockup awaiting trial in Chibi, Hubei Province, for one year and ten months (as of this writing, it’s over two years and four months). In his letter, he told his own story and also tried to get Americans to “learn about a different China.” He seemed to truly believe his letter would make it in front of President Obama, and apologized for occupying the president’s precious time. But he reasoned: this could be counted as “a time for international moral responsibility,” and so wasn’t a waste.

The letter has been on my mind for months, because it’s my job to bring the voice of Huang Wenxun and those like him to the world. But his letter was too long, so I decided to transmit the essentials. Then I thought I would also include the accounts of two other “political criminals”: Tang Jingling (唐荆陵) and Guo Feixiong (郭飞雄).

I’m under no illusions that President Obama will read this letter, even though I sit just four miles from the White House as I write. “To Obama” is just the title of this essay.

Huang Wenxun grew up on the coast of southernmost China, in the city of Huizhou, Guangdong Province. During senior high school (around 2008) he and his schoolmates wrote down their aspirations in life. Huang’s was grand: “to establish a democratic China.” He launched a student club dedicated to drawing Manga comics that made light of contemporary politics. But soon before graduation he dropped out of school: “I could no longer stand that wretched socialist-communist political education.”

I’ve read his letter several times, and I became conflicted every time I get to this part. One half of me reproached him: why didn’t you go to college? (I’m old enough to be his mother, so my reproval is that of a parent.) The other half of me understands deeply his torment, having been forced to mechanically memorize answers for political class examinations. I scored very high marks on the political portion when I took the national college entrance exam, but failed it badly when I took exams for graduate school—the revulsion I felt was such that swallowing flies would be a more pleasant experience than memorizing the Party’s brain-dead dogma.

In 1990 when Huang Wenxun was born, China was still cloaked in the deathly stillness that followed the bloody massacre of students on the streets of Beijing in 1989. That enforced silence has since clung to the air in China, noticeable to anyone in the least bit sensitive. But having spent a couple of years in Guangzhou, this post-1989 young adult came to the firm belief that street activism was his mission in life. “There need to be people constantly taking to the streets, making more and more Chinese people aware of their rights and civic consciousness. A public that refuses to slumber anymore is the ultimate force for toppling a dictatorship.”

Indeed, a phrase has been circulated for years among China’s opposition circles: “A thousand complaints and cries does less than standing on the street once.”

But this young man gave me a scare. On March 10, 2013, during the Communist Party’s annual ‘Two Sessions’ (两会), Huang Wenxun took to the street in Shenzhen, holding an enormous placard overhead.

Have no fear!

Overthrow the Communist Party!

Topple the dictatorship!

Long live democracy, freedom, constitutionalism, human rights, and equality!

The year prior he and his friends staged a similar event in Guangzhou, though the message that time was considerably milder: “No vote, no future.” Every time he did this he would be detained for a short period. He once also handed out flyers on the street, making extemporaneous speeches about voting rights, democracy, and the disclosure of officials’ private assets. In May 2013 he was in Chibi, Hebei Province with a few friends when he was arrested. He had by then visited ten cities and seen and made many friends.

He said his fear didn’t recede despite doing more activities. But every time the police came to get him, he’d shout what he wanted to say, “enjoying an authentic feeling from the depth of my soul.”

Huang Wenxun (黄文勋)

Huang Wenxun (黄文勋)

On the day he was arrested and thrown into the detention center in Chibi, he was repeatedly shocked with high-voltage electric batons by police—simply because he kept questioning the legality of their procedures. That night he saw police officers beating a few female prisoners outside the fence, and yelled at them to stop. So the police came in and gave him another round of electrocution.

He told President Obama about life in the detention center: He was moved between two cells, the bigger one of the two is about 6×6 meters; the open space where he gets fresh air is about 4×4 meters. “Inside the four high walls, I could see the sky through metal bars.” Detainees were made to work over 10 hours a day, and in his prison, they make paper money used for worshiping the dead. In other prisons, he reported what he had heard, prisoners made Jack & Jones, Adidas, Metersbonwe, Camel and other name brands. Medicines were sold to sick prisoners at high prices, and if they didn’t have money in their accounts, they wouldn’t get treatment. “I have seen with my own eyes that prisoners with edema due to malnutrition working over ten hours a day without any medication. And those who have connections or money receive ‘humane’ treatment.”   

Compared to jails in China, Shawshank looks like Heaven on earth.

Huang Wenxun requested that Obama tell Xi Jinping: “The Chinese people are going to wake up,” and “we hope the Communist Party abandons and ends one-party rule.” He said that he also hoped that the international community will always be vigilant when dealing with dictatorships. “Don’t rely on them,” he cautioned, “and don’t be kidnapped by profit!”

He wasn’t sure whether the letter to Obama would bring him retaliation, or more charges, from the authorities. But, “I’m not scared anymore. The longer I’m locked up, the more darkness I see, the little bit of fear in my heart should die away, especially when they grabbed from me the family letter notifying me of the death of my grandmother two days after the Mid-Autumn Festival. She wanted to see me on the holiday for family reunion.”

He “truly wishes that America will become stronger, and that its leaders, like in the past, adopt a clear and firm stance against dictatorships.” He also believes that “between the two camps of the free, democratic world and the dictatorships, freedom will ultimately prevail.”

At the end of the letter, he becomes elated as though he would fly free of his cage and out of the high walls. “Suddenly I thought of my hometown and my father… my yearning for light and freedom has never been this strong.” He propose that a World Freedom Day be established.

I can’t bear to tell him: there’s already a Human Rights Day, a Democracy Day, an Anti-Torture Day. Adding a Freedom Day won’t change anything. China and the United States hold human rights dialogues every year, but  China’s human rights situation has gotten worse and worse. On Friday September 25, President Obama will welcome Xi Jinping to the White House with a 21 gun salute. Even if the American president and people shrug their shoulders at human rights in China, or at the large-scale arrest of human rights lawyers and activists, this is the head of a regime that has hacked the personnel records of millions of federal workers. It’s tantamount to a terrorist attack. I’m also American and I want to know: What is wrong with America?

This isn’t all. There are reports saying that when Xi visits, the White House is going to shut Lafayette Square adjacent to the White House, forcing protesters farther away. Lafayette Square, I heard, is hardly ever shut down for protesters; it’s the very symbol of free speech in the face of power, and it belongs to the people. Is White House enforcing a request from the Chinese government? What’s wrong with Obama?

Now let’s turn to Tang Jingling. In 2014 he was arrested on charges of “inciting subversion of state power,” and was brought to trial this summer. His sentence hasn’t been announced.

Tang Jingling in front of Lin Zhao tomb, 2009.

Tang Jingling in front of Lin Zhao tomb, 2009.

This year Tang turns 44, but he looks much younger, bearing all the traces of “a youth from the plains of the Yangtze River and Han River who was shy and proud.” He used to visit Twitter often, the earliest impression I got of him was from this tweet: “Has there ever been law in the eyes of the communist bandits? In late 1996 when I passed the bar exam and became a lawyer, determined to commit myself to social justice, I went to the Shantou court in Longhu, Guangdong, to attend a court hearing. It was my first time to a court hearing. There was a young man on trial, accused of rape. He painfully described how, in custody, he had his testicles smashed by police to force a confession. The judge interrupted him hastily. This was how I began my career as a lawyer.”  

I was new on Twitter when I read that. As a short story writer, I was drawn to his story, imagining the feelings and thoughts passing through the newly licensed young lawyer sitting in the back of the courtroom. I wanted to interview him, and began to prepare. I even made a Tang Jingling folder on my computer where I saved his articles I found online.

But I got busier and busier. I was constantly dealing with more urgent things, and always felt that he wasn’t in imminent danger and the interview could wait. In the end, I never talked to him.

According to his self defense and final statement at trial, he was an early adopter in using electronic bulletin boards, emails, independent websites, online communities, and microblogging platforms to enlighten the public about democracy. He became an active warrior against the Communist Party’s constant campaigns to censor and destroy such information. He believed that the arrival of the Internet, coupled with the unstinting efforts of liberals to express themselves, “have redrawn the map of China’s political ideology, broken the monopoly of the Party’s mouthpiece media on China’s public opinion sphere, and created an opportunity for the next stage of China’s democratic transformation.”

In 2003 during the Sun Zhigang (孙志刚) case, netizens mobilized a signature campaign to abolish the Custody and Repatriation system (收容遣送制), and he was the legal adviser. In 2004, Tang and lawyer Gao Zhisheng (高智晟) provided defense for two shoe factory workers in Dongguan who led a strike. Both were among the earliest rights lawyers. He was the counsel for villagers in Taishi village, Guangdong, who revolted to impeach corrupt village heads. Soon he was disbarred and his short career as a lawyer ended.   

But that was only the beginning of his struggle. Many in opposition circles were beset by despair and saw no viable path and strategy following the bloody crackdown in 1989 and cruel prison terms for those who tried to organize opposition parties in the 1990s. But Tang Jingling believed that “China’s democratization requires a strategy and it is possible.” He found inspiration in Gandhi’s idea of civil disobedience. In 2006, he started the “Buy-back My Ballot” campaign: In 2006 and 2007, China held the first county and township-level elections across the country that involved 900 million mostly rural Chinese. The campaign encouraged citizens to openly state that they would not take part in the local vote registration, nor would they vote.  

There have been no real elections under the current regime, and citizens have never been given the right to elect their leaders. The campaign reminded people not to give up their rights silently; instead, protest the lack of meaningful elections by making a statement.   

In the spring of 2007, he initiated “June Fourth Reflection Day,” hoping to activate the dormant seeds of the 1989 movement. In 2008, he started with friends the “April 29 Lin Zhao Cemetery Visit” in Suzhou. Lin Zhao was a student at Peking University when she was declared a rightist, and on April 29, 1968, she was executed in Shanghai. Lin Zhao’s name in today’s China has become a symbol of opposition, thanks to a wave of scholastic and documentary studies by liberal intellectuals and filmmakers.   

The Lin Zhao Cemetery Visit lasted seven years, drawing more and more activists each year. It has become such a standard “pilgrimage” for many that the authorities have installed surveillance cameras over the tomb. When the visitors arrive, the road leading up to the tomb is flanked by black-clad police.

Tang Jingling, Wang Qingying and Yuan Xinting in Guangzhou wearing T-shirts that spread the democratic ideas.

Tang Jingling, Wang Qingying and Yuan Xinting in Guangzhou wearing T-shirts that spread the democratic ideas.

Tang discovered, with joy, Dr. Gene Sharp and his non-violent resistance handbooks. He and friends wore T-shirts with the words “democracy” and “freedom” in Baiyun Hills, a tourist attraction in Guangzhou, to “bring elements of democratic culture into daily life.” It didn’t work in China. Unsurprisingly each one of them was summoned by police and threatened. From 2009, Tang initiated social projects such as “my 583,” “the abolition of household registration apartheid” and the proposal of a “basic retirement plan,” to mobilize ordinary people to demand their basic rights to livelihood.

He was one of the 303 Chinese who first signed Charter 08, and was among those arrested during the Jasmine Revolution crackdown in 2011. The police held him for 6 months and tortured him. They also turned his apartment into a prison for his wife. In 2013, there was another round of sweeping arrests which continued into this year with the disappearance of scores of rights lawyers and activists—Tang Jingling was once again swept up.

In the detention center he was locked up with embezzlers, gangsters, smugglers, gamblers, con artists, murderers, and rapists. “More than 20 people are locked in a closed cell of a little over 20 square meters with one toilet and one cold water tap… Here it’s a luxury to see the sunlight, the clouds, the moon, the stars, or a blade of grass. Such ravages are beyond the imagination of those who have not experienced it first hand.” He continued: “It’s like being tossed into a fire pit, or trampled underfoot.”

Strictly speaking, what he and his colleagues have done is not that much, and the impact they had is also minuscule. He knows this. “My assessment of what I have done is just the first shovel of dirt the foolish old man dug to move the mountain in front of his house, or the first rock Jingwei dropped to fill a sea.” But the charge against him is grand: he is a subverter.

By comparison the careers of Gandhi and Mandela, two great freedom fighters, were luxurious. As lawyers, they were able to practice normally. As political leaders, they were able to organize. As activists, they could demonstrate on the streets. As “criminals” on trial, they could defend themselves eloquently. When I saw a photograph of Mandela doing carpentry in the open, sunny yard of a prison, I thought that compared to what goes on in China, his oppressors were rather merciful.

More than once I’ve heard China watchers dismiss China’s opposition movement. They shake their heads impatiently: “You don’t have to like the Communist Party, but there’s no viable alternative.” Listening to them, you get the sense that the opposition is incompetent and worthless—their reading of China barely conceals their unthinking acceptance and adoration of power.

The 49-year-old Guo Feixiong (A.K.A. Yang Maodong) is a product of the Western liberal thinking that surged through China in the 1980s. The genesis of his political opposition came from the 1986 student movement, which he took part in as a philosophy student in Shanghai, and the 1989 movement when he was a teacher in Hubei Province. He described the exploration of peaceful opposition during the 1990s as “the god of medicine tasting a hundred plants to determine their properties.” In the rights movement that was born and shaped between 2003 to 2005, he saw an expandable path for Chinese political opposition that’s “highly original, deeply rooted, and indelible.”    

In the seminal Taishi Village incident (太石村罷免事件) in which villagers revolted to remove corrupt village heads, he became the brain and the nerve center. “We worked together within the law (which the government was obliged to pretend, at least, to recognize) to defend political and human rights and raise democratic awareness. Everything we did was completely open and procedurally proper. We supported landmark cases, including Cai Zhuohua’s (蔡卓華) imprisonment for printing Bibles and the collective efforts of Taishi Village residents to impeach corrupt officials. The impact of these cases was magnified by the Internet, where they won broad sympathy and participation from society at large.”  

In his own words, he is “one of the earliest definers, makers, and foot soldiers of the rights movement.”  

His prison career started almost as soon as his leadership in the rights movement. Since April 2005, he has been incarcerated four times, and the third time he was sentenced to five years in prison for “illegal business operations.” He enjoyed a short-lived, surveilled “freedom” from September 2011 to August 2013, when he was imprisoned again.

Because of his refusal to compromise, “my interrogators have used excessive force on me and have resorted to many forms of torture. They have tasered my head, hands, shins, thighs and private parts in sequence, yelling ‘You were offered parole and you said no!  You prefer jail and making the Communist Party look bad! We’ll see who is tougher here – you or the Party!’  Their torture aims at coercing a confession in court, where they want me to admit that I am wrong to oppose the Party and that I will give up the fight for democracy of my own free will in exchange for parole and for getting my university job back. Their broader intent is to undermine the image of the rights defense movement and to demoralize civil society by getting a few ‘standard bearers,’ as they put it, to accept parole.”

“For thirteen days and nights, they put me through marathon interrogations and denied me sleep. For forty-two days, I was reviled, beaten, and shackled, with the shackles nailed to a bed. My hair was plucked out. Once my torturer applied a high-wattage taser to my groin. To defend my dignity as a man, I had to confess to the utterly groundless accusation of an ‘illegal business operation.’ I barely escaped the fate of my cellmate, whose penis was zapped to a blackened smear.”

Bill Keller, executive editor of The New York Times, wrote about the Mandela trial in the paper’s obituary of him: “His legend grew when, on the first day of that trial, he entered the courtroom wearing a traditional Xhosa leopard-skin cape to underscore that he was an African entering a white man’s jurisdiction.” I don’t know what a Xhosa leopard-skin cape looks like, but I can imagine Mandela walking into the court, wrapped in a leopard-skin cape, noble, tall, and irresistibly charming.

But Guo Feixiong lamented: “In 2007, an honest commitment to promote democracy by going to jail was such an arduous thing to attempt.” In fact, more than stripping dissidents of their freedom, the Communist Party has always used extreme cruelty to strip them of their dignity.   

This time around, Guo Feixiong has been incarcerated simply for urging the Chinese government to ratify the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and for taking part in the call for press freedom during the Southern Weekend incident in 2013. He has been denied yard time for 776 days, since the Chinese authorities secretly detained him on August 8, 2013. Liu Yuandong (刘远东), who was arrested and tried without a verdict for his participation in the same incident, has not had yard time for 924 days. China’s tyrannical rulers use these methods to destroy the lives of dissenting citizens.  

To fellow political prisoners who buckle under torture, Guo Feixiong has only tolerance and understanding. “We should save our condemnation for the perpetrators, the people who deny their opponents dignified prison time and a dignified death, who trample such dignity underfoot. We should never use philosophical contortions to rationalize the bestiality of totalitarian rule,” he wrote.  

Guo Feixiong is a doer. “For those of us who are committed to this cause, action is imperative. Only through action can we prove to history that we did not surrender our dignity to dictators, and that we did not give up the purity we cherish the most… The chief and greatest punishment we have for totalitarianism is a thorough rejection of its rejection of justice and humanity.”

He also saw himself as “Sisyphus who rolls an immense boulder up a hill, Prometheus who steals the fire, the hero Kuafu who dies chasing the sun, or the foolish old man who is determined to move the mountain.”

The court statement he issued on November 29, 2014, following his trial thus concludes, “our exploration and toil have not been in vain. Our path is becoming ever clearer, and the horizons of our souls ever broader. To have had the opportunity to rush forward on the front lines of the movement for freedom, torturous as it has been; to have gone against the tide and borne the cost of doing so; and to have glimpsed the beauty inherent in my personal tragedy and in the sacred purity that is part of paying the price – these have been the immense good fortune of an ordinary man.”

Quite frankly, I cannot imagine how he could have written this in his prison cell.

“Why doesn’t China have a Mandela?” Following the passing of Mandela at the end of 2013, I asked Mr. Hu Ping (胡平) whose pamphlet “On Freedom of Speech” enlightened many young students during the 1980s. He said, “One of the greatest ironies of history is that the most famous freedom fighters were famous because, to a great extent, the oppression they revolted against was not tyrannical and cruel in the extreme.”

I also noticed that, on Twitter, many Chinese tweeps pointed out the opponents of Mandela’s struggle. “What formed Mandela’s greatness,” wrote lawyer Liu Xiaoyuan, “apart from his belief and perseverance, was more importantly the fact that the rulers respected a bottom line: Mandela was almost never beaten in custody. Just think: having been imprisoned for over 20 years, he was still able to walk out of jail in good health and without having to confess to his ‘crimes.’ This is simply unthinkable in dictatorships.”  

In other words, the Communist Party is so savage and despicable that any Mandela in China would be destroyed before they had the chance to become Mandela.

On the day of Mandela’s funeral, I turned on the television for once. President Obama was speaking. “There are too many leaders who claim solidarity with Madiba’s struggle for freedom, but do not tolerate dissent from their own people. And there are too many of us on the sidelines, comfortable in complacency or cynicism when our voices must be heard.” All of a sudden, our president looked to me like an actor—saying the most beautiful words on an occasion that demanded no courage or leadership. I jumped up and turned the television off.

Of course, there is another part of Mandela’s funeral I remember: that the sign language interpreter next to President Obama, gesticulating vividly, was in fact an impostor.  


Yaxue Cao (曹雅学) is the founder and editor of China Change. Follow her on Twitter @YaxueCao



2015 Front Line Defenders Award Presented to Chinese HRD Guo Feixiong, September 11, 2015.

Albert Einstein Institution Statement, June 25, 2015.





Guo Feixiong, a Civil Rights Hero

By Xiao Shu, published: January 8, 2015

A verdict awaits the pioneer of China’s rights movement after he stood trial the second time last November. Veteran commentator Xiao Shu, writing originally in the New York Times Chinese, places Guo Feixiong in the larger picture of the rights struggle in China. – The Editor


A civil rights movement has been unfolding in China. As Martin Luther King Jr. was to the American civil rights movement, essential figures have been emerging from the movement in China. Guo Feixiong (郭飞雄), who was tried on November 28 for “gathering a crowd to disrupt order in a public place,” is one of them.

While the American Civil Rights Movement fought for the rights of millions of African Americans, the Chinese civil rights movement is fighting for the rights of all but every Chinese citizen. For in China, it is not just the powerless who do not have rights; those who are in power are not protected by the law either, once they lose out in power struggles. Almost every Chinese can identify with African Americans fighting for civil rights in the 1960s, except that he or she is in an even worse lot where there is no freedom, equality or justice.

Well-respected maverick Chinese lawyer Gao Zhisheng (L) during a gathering with legal consultant Guo Feixiong in Beijing, 06 January 2006.  Guo was recently released after more than three months of detention for helping Chinese farmers campaign against their allegedly corrupt village chief, in the latest twist in a sometimes violent dispute seen as a test case in bringing grassroots democracy to China.  (AFP PHOTO)

Well-respected maverick Chinese lawyer Gao Zhisheng (L) during a gathering with legal consultant Guo Feixiong in Beijing, 06 January 2006. Guo was recently released after more than three months of detention for helping Chinese farmers campaign against their allegedly corrupt village chief, in the latest twist in a sometimes violent dispute seen as a test case in bringing grassroots democracy to China. (AFP PHOTO)

This is precisely why Guo Feixiong has devoted himself to the rights movement. Guo Feixiong, whose legal name is Yang Maodong (杨茂东), was born in Gucheng, Hubei province (湖北谷城) in 1966, and graduated from East China Normal University in Shanghai in 1988. He would have had excellent career prospects had he chosen to stay in the system and submit himself to all its constrains. Pursuing an independent publishing enterprise, he was successful enough to afford a luxury apartment in one of Guangzhou’s best neighborhoods. In 2001, however, he gave up his thriving business and chose the thorny path of an activist.

In 2005, Guo Feixiong came back to Guangdong as a legal advisor of Beijing Zhisheng Law Office [lawyer Gao Zhisheng’s law office] where he took part in the rights struggles in Nanhai (南海), Foshan (佛山) and Panyu (番禹), forging a bond with civil rights activists in Guangdong. The incident in Taishi Village (番禺太石村) drew international attention at the time in which villagers demanded the impeachment of corrupt village officials for financial irregularities, and the township government used hundreds of policemen to put down the demonstrations and arrest scores of protesters. As the confrontation escalated, Guo Feixiong, who represented the villagers, mobilized prominent intellectuals, journalists and lawyers to join the campaign, pioneering a multi-pronged civil engagement in rights defense cases that became a model for later cases. It was also the beginning of a trend in which the system is challenged at the lowest level.

The death of Sun Zhigang in a repatriation center in 2003 was considered to have ushered in China’s rights movement, but the incident of Taishi village in 2005 was considered the beginning of a movement for political and civil rights.

Around the same time as the Taishi incident in Guangdong, Gongmeng (公盟) was founded by Xu Zhiyong, Teng Biao and Guo Yushan in Beijing; in Shandong, the barefoot lawyer Chen Guangcheng was imprisoned for standing up for people’s rights. These three major rights defense incidents took place in close succession, making 2005 the beginning year of the civil rights movement in China, and Guo Feixiong was one of its earliest initiators, architects and die-hard practitioners.

Two Guangdong activists holding a sign demanding freedoms.

Two Guangdong activists holding a sign demanding freedoms. Click to enlarge.

For his actions, he was subjected to cruel retaliation and has paid an enormous price. Over the last nine years since 2005, he has been arrested four times for “gathering a crowd to disrupt order in a public place.” On his third arrest in 2006 he was sentenced to five years in prison. He has undergone over 200 interrogations, including a marathon session that lasted for 13 days and 13 nights without him being allowed to sleep. Beatings, hair-pulling, and electrocution were all designed to destroy his will power, force him to surrender, and compel him to withdraw from rights activities.

But his persecutors underestimated his strength. Instead of giving in, he became steeled, setting a record of a total of 186 days on several hunger strikes.

In September, 2011, after being released from prison, he promptly returned to the civil rights struggles, working with activists in Guangdong to strengthen their ranks and fight tough battles. His most notable achievement was in organizing the street protests in connections with the widely-reported Southern Weekly Incident at the beginning of 2013. It was the first bold attempt at political assembly in China since 1989 in which citizens took the initiative and came out on the street to claim and exercise their political rights. Guo Feixiong was the leader among them. Immediately afterwards, he planned and led a signature campaign demanding the ratification of the International Convention on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) by the National People’s Congress. He organized the so-called “eight-city flash campaign,” sending small teams to eight cities to publicize rights efforts, and once again, breaking new ground in pushing for political assemblies.

Left to right: Guo Feixiong, Tang Jingling, and Liu Shihui, three rights leaders in Guangzhou.

Left to right: Guo Feixiong, Tang Jingling, and Liu Shihui, three rights leaders in Guangzhou.

As a civil rights activist, Guo Feixiong is rare for being fearless and unwavering, but his moderation and practicality are even more admirable. This was best manifested during the Southern Weekend incident. On the morning of January 7, at the suggestion of policemen on the scene, protestors agreed to withdraw from the front gate of Nanfang Metropolis Media Group on Guangzhou Avenue, a thoroughfare, taking up positions instead on sidewalks in order not to block traffic. Nor were the sidewalks crowded enough as to block pedestrians. The street demonstration lasted three days, peaceful and orderly from beginning to end. This has been corroborated by many witnesses as well as journalists of Nanfang Metropolis Media Group. This outcome had a lot to do with Guo Feixiong. At the beginning of the street protest, he set a clear scope and objectives. On the scene, he helped to direct the protesters, urging them to leave at 5:00 pm on January 7. As Guo put it later, “Our political aspiration is serious, our objectives are temperate, and our operation is aboveboard, peaceful and respectful.” The “eight-city flash campaign” that followed was conducted similarly, falling well in line with international norms – demonstrating in parks and sidewalks without disrupting order in public places.

Guo Feixiong has proved himself to be as courageous as he is wise. Having suffered unspeakable torture and brushes with death, he harbors no hatred or radicalism. His healthy humanity transcends the Maoist you-die-I-live philosophy of struggle and his goal is to secure civil rights. To allege as the Chinese authorities do that he does what he does to take revenge on the regime or to usurp power is a slur on him. His conviction to civil rights and constitutional democracy is akin to a religion and what he has pursued is a transcendental idealism rather than short-lived power. As a citizen, he insists on practicing what he preaches, honoring self-restraint and a balance between freedom and order. He is a determined opponent, but also a responsible and constructive one who is keen on civilized and peaceful political opposition that will also serve as an example for the kind of political transition that will surely arrive in China, one that skews chaos and destruction.

The words “civil rights movement” conjure up the American civil rights movement in the 1960s. However, constitutional democracy of the United States was compatible with civil rights, and the American civil rights movement was not about fighting against the political architecture but about perfecting it. Public support aside, Martin Luther King’s work was supported by three presidents (Eisenhower, Kennedy and Johnson), the Congress, as well as the Supreme Court. The result was political and societal synergy.

Activists in Beijing voice support for Guo Feixiong. Hu Jia, third from left; Wang Lihong, third from right.

Activists in Beijing voice support for Guo Feixiong. Hu Jia, third from left; Wang Lihong, third from right.

In China, it’s a different picture. Guo Feixiong has faith in humanity, including the humanity of those working in and for the system, but a totalitarian system exists by being rigid, unyielding to change. People within the system might stage a righteous uprising for which Guo Feixiong has always hoped, but the system itself will never be anything that’s compatible with civil rights. The civil rights movement in China is bound to be arduous and tragic. The dictatorship does not permit any challenge; it does not bow down to pressure; it does not tolerate growth of any social capital, be it intellectual or moral, and will kill any of it in its infancy. Consequently, the civil rights movement in China will inevitably go through many cycles of surging and failing. It’s not an exaggeration to say China’s transition to a constitutional democracy will be one of the most difficult political projects in human history.

For individuals, it takes extraordinary perseverance and willpower to commit to a cause that offers no light in sight. Guo Feixiong has known all along what he is doing. He further believes that there must be people who are equipped with courage as well as reason to make such a commitment to a steadfast and secure transition which minimizes social cost, helps the population overcome fear of change, and inspires confidence in its eventual success.

Nationalism, the people’s livelihood and civil rights have been the three basic themes of the last hundred years in China. Now that the problems of national independence and subsistence are behind us, civil rights takes the central place for the Chinese as a nation. We need a crash course in civil rights. It is imperative for the 1.3 billion Chinese to become true sovereigns, without being falsely represented, without being discriminated against and abused, free at last from the institutionalized separation that denies them of their political and civil rights. Rights alone will allow people to identify with the country, and rights alone will instill a sense of responsibility in them. Only then can the country become a community that enjoys peace, reconciliation, cooperation and a future. No other solution is in store. Technical solutions can buy some time in a limited scope, but even that is diminishing.

China has come to a crucial moment where civil rights are the only path left to confront its problems. Guo Feixiong once said, those who oppose constitutional democracy are traitors to the nation. Similarly, those who persecute Guo Feixiong and his comrades-in-arms are also traitors to the nation. While the dictatorial system is powerful and difficult to counter, it has been met with a still more powerful force, or a trend. This is the trend of the civil rights movement in which hundreds of millions of powerless people are awakening to claim their rights. All the Guo Feixiongs might be insignificant in their material possessions, but their ideals and aspirations are that of our time, and those in power should understand this.



Xiao Shu at George Washington University in April, 2014.

Xiao Shu at George Washington University in April, 2014.

Xiao Shu (笑蜀), the pen name of Chen Min, is a former columnist for the Chinese newspaper Southern Weekly and the Chinese magazine Yanhuang Chunqiu, and an active participant in the New Citizens Movement. He is currently a visiting scholar at National Chengchi University in Taiwan.



Meet Guo Feixiong, a profile by Xiao Guozhen, July 23, 2014.

Guo Feixiong: Willing to Be Cannon Fodder, Will Be a Monument, by Xiao Shu, July 7, 2014.

Guo Feixiong and Sun Desheng Indictment  


Chinese original

(Translated by Xiao Hua with the author’s permission)