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Xu Zhiyong, September 16, 2018
Xu Zhiyong was released from prison on July 16, 2017, after serving four years for his role in the New Citizens Movement. Xu is a seminal figure in China’s rights defense movement with the founding of “Gongmeng” (公盟) in 2003, a NGO providing legal assistance to victims of social injustice. It was a training ground for some of the earliest human rights lawyers and took on some of the most high-profile cases of the time. Gongmeng was shut down by the government in 2009. After that Xu Zhiyong and colleagues sought new ways to continue their work for change, resulting in the New Citizens Movement. Between 2013 and 2014, dozens of participants were thrown in jail, including Xu himself. China Change had extensive coverage of the movement and the crackdown, and a lengthy interview titled “Who Is Xu Ziyong?” Scroll down midway for a new, 6-minute video in which Xu Zhiyong speaks about his current projects and hopes for the future. The following article was first posted on July 20 in Xu’s new blog, and China Change is pleased to offer a complete translation of it. –– The Editors
It’s been a year since my release from prison. Friends often ask about my life during those four years. It seems as if it were a lifetime ago. That’s how it feels.
It was a summer morning –– the first time in three months I had been allowed to walk out the door of my home. A municipal public security bureau (PSB) car took my wife and I to the hospital for a prenatal check-up. After that I watched her to go to work.
When we returned to my residential compound, there were police cars and many mysterious strangers in front of my building. At the stairway, I was handed a criminal summons notice for “gathering a crowd to disrupt order in a public place.” Dozens of people entered my home and conducted a search.
I had already been deprived of my freedom for three months. On April 12 , I was intercepted at the airport departure gate on my way to Hong Kong, per invitation, to participate in a symposium marking the 10th anniversary of the Sun Zhigang case. From then on, people from the domestic security police’s wenbao (文保) division [i.e., political police responsible for culture and education work units] kept watch in the corridor 24/7; I couldn’t even go out to buy food.
On March 31, Yuan Dong (袁冬) and several others had gone to Xidan [西单, downtown Beijing about two miles west of the Tiananmen Square] calling for officials to publicly disclose their assets. Citizens of a normal country have freedom of speech. But this is China. They were taken into custody.
In April, Zhao Changqing (赵常青), Ding Jiaxi (丁家喜), Sun Hanhui (孙含会) and others were detained in succession. Two days earlier, Song Ze (宋泽) disappeared. I sent my unfinished manuscript “Free China” to Xiao Shu (笑蜀), and prepared for imprisonment.
What’s meant to be will be. “Gathering a crowd to disrupt order in a public place” was just an excuse.
What the autocrats were really concerned about was the New Citizens’ Movement. The “citizen” badge, the avatar, and the core values of “freedom, justice, love.” When, on the same day, banners were hung in more than 20 cities calling for the public disclosure of officials’ assets, it looked like a nascent political opposition was taking shape.
After May, I had three “talks” at a farm near Xiaotangshan [a small town in Changping district, Beijing] with someone who claimed to be the principal person in charge of the Beijing Municipal PSB. We argued about ideas, and he urged me to “admit my mistakes.” The meaning was very clear: if I surrendered, I could go home, but if I didn’t capitulate, I’d be facing 10 years or more, and there would be more than one criminal charge.
Think about your family. I said I could stop working and do nothing. If indeed I was mistaken regarding individual matters, I could admit to them, and I myself also reflect on them.
How did they want me to acknowledge them? It must be done in front of the media. A TV confession. That was asking me to renegade my mission.
For so many years, so many people and I worked hard together. Then all of a sudden, I was supposed to turn around and say that I’d done wrong? This is a question of character. I treasure freedom and I love life, but between destroying my character and being thrown behind bars, I can only choose the latter. Since there is no way to retreat, let whatever may come, come.
The car drove straight to the Beijing Municipal Special Police Division. It was the fourth negotiation. Two people who “talked” with me earlier showed up. “Shall we have more talking, or shall we go ahead with legal procedures?”
You’ve already begun crackdown, what else is there to talk about? We were deadlocked for two or three hours. The special police rushed in, put me in a car and drove off. I was blindfolded.
I got out of the car. I heard the sound of a plane and thought I was back at Beijing No.1 Detention Center, where I was detained in the summer of 2009.
It was Daxing (大兴). The cell in Beijing’s No. 3 Detention Center was already prepared. It was specially set up the day before. There were twelve people in the cell; except for me, everyone else were theft suspects. The vast majority of the more than 400 people detained in the No. 3 Detention Center were there for allegedly stealing mobile phones on public buses.
My code name was 716; the day was July 16, 2013.
No one was allowed to call me by my name. The “head” prisoner said that it was the same for an accomplice of Zhou Bin’s who was detained here last year: he was also called by a code name.
When the broadcast system called out: “716, 716!”, I pretended not to hear. Two days later, the calls changed to “Xu Zhiyong.”
Almost every day they interrogated me for long hours –– regarding the New Citizens’ Movement, citizens’ dinner gatherings, equal education rights for migrant workers’ children, and calls for officials to disclose their assets. I talked about ideas, and didn’t avoid discussing my own actions.
With respect to questions involving other people, I didn’t say a word. “It’s not convenient to say” was my answer, or I would tell the transcriber to simply note “silent.”
I was the one who went to the copy shop to print the flyers for the “228” petition for equal education rights. They repeatedly asked me where the copy shop was. I knew they were unlikely to be hard on the shop; at most, just threaten them a bit.
But I didn’t want innocent people to be harassed and frightened. My principle was not to give information about other people. I sat on the iron chair from morning till night, refusing to answer. The stalemate lasted for six days. Then they gave up.
They asked how much money Wang Gongquan (王功权) gave to Gongmeng (公盟, Open Constitution Initiative). I said, “I can’t tell you.” “Why are you holding it back when he himself has already told us?”
I didn’t say a word. My words must not become testimonies that are used to incriminate others.
This is also legal common sense. He gave me cash, only the two of us knew about it. This fact is not the same as a legal fact. Legal facts require at least two people’s testimony that mutually corroborates the other. If only one person says it, then it’s useless; it doesn’t become legal evidence.
I thought of all kinds of torture. When even life can be given, then torture doesn’t matter.
[Lawyer Zhang] Qingfang appeared in front of the iron-grated window, and we smiled at each other. What I remember best is his passionate and voluble manner during the Yanyuan Lectures. We were both PhD students at Peking University Law School. He was the class of ‘98, and I was ‘99.
He and lawyer Hu Yu (胡育) both came to see me almost every week. We exchanged information, and it was extremely important for the defense in political cases. They took and later disseminated a video of me speaking, handcuffed and in a prison garb. Because of this video, the interrogators were livid.
Later, the Party-state tightened control, and it’s now impossible for political prisoners to have such opportunities. Wang Quanzhang (王全璋) has not been allowed to meet with a lawyer for three years. They said this is according to their law. But how many countries in the world have such evil laws?
In defending political cases, it’s very important for lawyers to speak out. Regardless of whether a prisoner is prepared to go to jail or compromise in exchange for freedom, widespread outside attention is valuable. At a minimum, the attention would result in more safety for the prisoner. Speaking only in the authoritarian court setting is essentially saying nothing.
Even if you want to compromise, it’s a compromise on the part of the political prisoner, not on the part of the family and the lawyers. What family members and lawyers can do is to speak out, tell the story, and talk about how an idealist pursues democracy and freedom, how he or she upholds ideals and serves the society.
Every time a lawyer meets with his or her client and then tells the outside world, it’s basically the outside world’s only source of information. What autocrats fear most is the spread of the power of conscience. If lawyers are under too much pressure, they can talk to the family of their client, and then the family can speak to the media and put the news out online.
Li Wei (李蔚) was held next door; sometimes we were able to say hello to each other. Sometimes when I was taken out of the cell for interrogations, I could see Ding Jiaxi (丁家喜) in #201 cell, in quiet contemplation, as I walked down the hallway. Sometimes during the let-out time, I could hear the cry, “Call on officials to publicly disclose their assets!” They were Zhang Baocheng (张宝成) and Ma Xinli (马新立). In September, I knew that [Wang] Gongquan had also been taken in. One day we met in the hallway. We raised our shackled hands, and cupped one fist into the other hand to greet each other.
I told Qingfang to tell the others that those who could leave should do their best to leave; we don’t need so many friends going to jail.
My happiest day in the detention center was the news transmitted over the walkie-talkie that Song Ze (宋泽) was released on bail. Later, I learned from a fellow prisoner that when Song Ze left the detention center he had grown long hair, and that he had never complied with the jailhouse rules.
Early November, the gloom hung the heaviest.
One day they began to ask about “a country of the people and for the people,” a constitutional vision for a beautiful China.
In the fall of 2011, on the occasion of 100th anniversary of the Revolution of 1911, many constitutional scholars held bi-weekly discussions that lasted for five months with continuous research output. Where is China headed? What the Chinese people need is a constitutional consensus.
They stopped letting my lawyers see me. For a Chinese legal professional, this suggested a subversion charge. Some of the cell arrangements, such as not having to be on duty at night, were cancelled.
They began to use night interrogations –– just when I was about to fall asleep, they came to get me. Straight through until dawn. I was expecting that, perhaps next, I would be deprived of sleep for days –– a form of torture. I said to them that if they did the same tomorrow, I would refuse to cooperate.
The second night, I didn’t say a word; it was a stalemate till dawn.
It was a weekend. Back to the cell, I lay down on the bed plank amid the blaring TV.
I was exhausted. Everywhere was grey. Initially, it was one charge, with a maximum sentence of five years; now there were two counts, which means at least 10 years. Under five years, it’s part of life; ten years and more, it’s a career. That’s a fundamental difference.
There is a lot of suffering in life. Prison was never a surprise for me. When I bought a home in 2004, the purpose was very clear: when I was released from prison one day, I’d have a place to live. But ten years would be a long time when that became a reality! I was overcome by immeasurable pain and sadness.
Suddenly a voice said, in a flash, “Make it a happy experience” (快乐体验). In 2009, when I was at the Beijing No. 1 Detention Center, there was a similar moment of sudden light.
Those are moments when history is made.
Embracing everything in life with happiness. I got up, and using a small piece of sandstone, wrote “make it a happy experience” on the wall of cell #208.
I had no paper or pen –– this probably was a rule targeting me, I had quite a few words. On July 31, I wrote: “For freedom, justice, love, and happiness for all beings, for your glory, Lord, I want to live your life in this world.”
On December 5, Nelson Mandela passed away, and I wrote “Long Road to Freedom.”
I’ve always believed there’s a mysterious and inexorable force in me, leading me and spurring me on. He always flashes light in the darkest moments of my life. He created this world. He is the ultimate cause of everything –– the universe, life, evolution, humanity, and civilization.
They came for me on third night, menacing. As soon as I came out of my cell, the guard yelled, “Squat down!” I laughed. It is the rule of the detention center that when a suspect leaves his cell he must squat and put his hands behind his head, fingers interlaced. I never abided by that rule.
As soon as I sat down in the interrogation room, a new face, a man in his thirties, unleashed a torrent of invective and abuse.
Who do you think you are? Scum, bastard, degenerate… he exhausted almost all of the insulting words there are in the Chinese language. He paced back and forth, waving his arms, stomping his feet, twisting out his cigarette butts, making threatening gestures and monstrously screaming. It seemed that he was about to tear me to pieces and gobble me up. Both my hands were shackled to the iron chair, and I sat quietly. This went on for about an hour. Then he stopped. The room became quiet.
I raised my head, and looking into his eyes, asked him, “Are you done performing?”
I was genuinely concerned for this person. Who is he? What did he just do? For whom? How could he utter those words if he had the slightest sense of right and wrong? Unless he is mentally ill –– he is not, he is putting on a show.
It was like watching from high above a little marionette shook and screamed loudly on the blue earth. He looked so pathetic that I had to show my concern.
He suddenly fell apart. He said, in a succession of quick utterances, “Alas, I am really sorry; I was indeed performing; oh dear, I really can’t do this job! Why are they asking me to do this?”
He had completely forgotten about his colleagues around him, as well as the watching eyes supervising them in another room. Later, we chatted for a while. He was a graduate of Renmin University. He repeatedly apologized, saying that he shouldn’t have cursed and insulted me, and that he had failed.
If I had any fear, or felt humiliated, they would have won. Whatever worked on you, they would use it against you. For me, beating would only inspire me. In Linyi, Shandong province, at the entrance of the black jail in the Youth Hostel, brutal violence did not make me submit. Nor did insults have any use.
In a post-totalitarian society, ideology is dead. There is no more class hatred. Beating people is just a job, a role to play.
From a historic perspective, we each play our own role. What’s there to be afraid when you transcend the confines of this world and look at yourself and the world around you from the vantage point of distance? You see the preordained role of each person in the world; there is only compassion.
Just like that, the quasi-torture of me was over.
On December 15, the news of Mandela’s death was broadcast on television. I thought of the song “The Glorious Years” by Beyond. How many people must bear the cost for a nation to be saved? Countless ancestors shed blood. We are their successors. We’re very fortunate.
2014 arrived. In the brightly lit cell, on the large shared plank bed, each went to sleep with their own dreams. I recalled the distant ring bells, the open countryside of my childhood, the wheat waving in the spring breeze. And the green lawns of New Haven, and the cross atop of a church pointing to the blue sky and white clouds. And the clamor and roar on New Year Eve on the southern shore of Lake Weiming, straddling two centuries. The distant bells; the years of youth in the river of time.
I prepared for trial.
As far as the law was concerned we were not guilty, of course. Opposing segregation based on hukou, or household registration, promoting equal education rights, and calling on officials to publicly disclose their assets, all of these is simply public expression and an exercise of freedom of speech as stipulated in China’s Constitution. We didn’t block roads or traffic; we didn’t “disrupt social order”; our actions resulted in no social harm whatsoever.
All of the witnesses for the prosecution were either policemen or security guards, and none of them testified in court. And not a single city resident was a victim.
The Party didn’t respect the law, nor did it care about procedures. The lawyers fought hard about the key issues of whether the New Citizen cases should be handled together or separately, and the appearance of witnesses in court.
The New Citizen “cases” were obviously a single case. We all identify as citizens, recognize the core values of “freedom, justice, and love,” and work together to promote educational equality and the public disclosure of officials’ assets. The allegations against us, as well as the case materials, were the same; there was no legal reason to try us separately.
The authorities used rogue, unlawful methods to force the case to be divided into separate cases in order to minimize the impact of the New Citizen trial. That was the only explanation.
We requested witnesses to appear in court to testify, a reasonable request in any normal country, but the judge refused.
Without respect for procedures, it was impossible for the trial to be just.
The so-called “trial” then was no more than a formality; all we could do was use non-cooperation to protest. My lawyers and I agreed to sit through the trial in complete silence.
The trial was held on January 22, 2014. The police cordoned off the intersection near the court. Many friends came to the courthouse that day, and many more friends were restricted from coming. Thank you all!
My lawyers Zhang Qingfang and Yang Jinzhu (杨金柱) explained briefly the reasons why we must be silent, and then stopped talking. Regardless of how the judges asked, all three of us maintained silence.
Enraged, the presiding judge called for an adjournment. He urged me to speak. I didn’t.
In private, other judges and prosecutors said to me that they were sorry, there was nothing else they could do –– they did so to let me know that they still had a conscience. Only the presiding judge was full of hostility toward me. There are fewer and fewer people like him in the autocratic system.
When the trial resumed, we maintained our silence. No matter what the judges or prosecutors said, we ignored it all. The angry presiding judge announced the court would adjourn again, and threatened me and my two lawyers.
With basic procedural justice trampled upon, how could we cooperate? The next part of the hearing was pointless. One by one, the prosecutors presented their “evidence.” The judge asked the defendant if there was any objection. No answer from me. Any objections from the lawyers? Silence.
They are all in it together, so let them do their own show. At one point, I dozed off.
It was finally over at four o’clock in the afternoon. When I gave my final statement, the judge interrupted several times. Finally, I was forced to stop.
It’s not important what was said in court, “For freedom, justice, and love –– my court statement” has already been disseminated outside the courtroom.
She came on the day of the trial. Our daughter was born just nine days before. I got down on my knees. Actually, those of us who believe in destiny don’t care about the price. But our loved ones bear the cost. Four days after the first-instance trial, the verdict was pronounced. The four-year sentence was not a surprise. But for a wife and a 13-day old baby, it was much too long.
We filed an appeal on the final day of the appeal period. Not to change the outcome, but just to lengthen the battle front, so more people could learn about the citizen movement.
The major facts were unclear and the procedure was seriously illegal, but the authoritarian court is not a place to reason. The court of second instance, the Beijing High People’s Court, didn’t hold a court “hearing.” They were afraid of another trial. On the day the verdict was announced, I declared in a loud voice when I was taken out of the courtroom by bailiffs: “The absurd judgment cannot stop the trend of progress of human civilization, and the haze of communist dictatorship will inevitably be dispelled; the sunshine of freedom, justice, and love will inevitably shine in China!”
There is joy everywhere. My last days at the detention center were leisurely. There was a fundamental improvement in my shuangsheng ability (a variation of poker). I could now remember cards. After each round the loser would have to drink cold water. A young man who had been to the juvenile detention facility when he was a teen promised me that he was going to open a hot spicy soup stall after he got out. I promised to help him. I don’t know where he is now.
On April 27, a young guard said goodbye to me after breakfast. His family is in Fengtai (丰台), and they also suffered forced eviction and demolition of their home; he had consulted me about some legal issues.
For English subtitles, click setting.
The first stop was Tianhe Prison (天河监狱). It was formerly known as the “South Building”; the transfer station was well known for its perversely strict management. Prisoners who were not from Beijing were sent here and then transferred to their place of residence to serve their sentences. I had heard many stories about the “South Building”, so from the outset I didn’t have a good impression.
At the beginning, the prison was unusually harsh. Then we were under regular management. During the last three months up until we got out of prison, the management loosened up. With each change, one felt happier. The same changes, if done in reverse order, it would be hard to endure.
Tianhe is the starting point for prison, it played the role of hell. New prisoners had nothing, not even a single drawer. There was no private space whatsoever. You couldn’t read, you couldn’t take an afternoon nap. Every day, before we watched TV for study, the warden shouted, “Bow your heads, raise your heads, bow your heads, raise your heads…”
I must resist, for human rights, and also to carve out some space for myself.
On the first day, because I wore slippers in the corridor, the lieutenant blocked me, and I said I would not obey. He yelled, do you dare to write that down? I said, Give me a piece of paper and I will write it down that I refuse to obey order. I did just that and signed my name.
There was a small library there for the prisoners from Beijing who remained at Tianhe. I went and got a book. The lieutenant told me to take it back; I refused. He shouted at the cell leader, “Take it away from him!” I said, “Who is going to come over here and have a fight with me?” The cell leader was a skinny young man. He used to work at the Beijing Local Taxation Bureau; his crime was taking bribes. He didn’t know what to do. I was able to keep the book.
I know that I had the strength to resist because of the attention on me from hundreds of thousands of people. That is my good fortune and also the hope of the nation. Compared with many who came before me, I was lucky.
I would often stand in front of the window in the cell, thinking about the golden dandelions in the sun and the sparking stars, the cuckoo singing throughout the night, the happiness. Also my boyhood.
The one month of resistance was over. On May 30, 2014, I was told to gather my things. The deputy warden said he didn’t know which prison I was being transferred to. We had talked about privileges in prison before. He said that I might be sent to Yancheng (燕城). Usually a prisoner would go to a second prison for another two months, and then to some other prison. I hoped that my situation would stabilize as soon as possible.
The police car got on the highway. The wheat fields on both sides were just turning yellow. When I was a child, this was my favorite season. White mushrooms, hard working ants, panicked hares whizzing by. Those distant times.
The car drove to a yard with a high electrified wall. Seeing “Liulin Prison” (柳林监狱), my heart said, my Longchang Yi (龙场驿)! Five hundred years later, I was also in a remote place. Far away from it all.
Liulin Prison is divided into seven wards; each ward had about 100 prisoners and 20 prison guards.
In my ward, the Superintendent (the leader, later renamed ward captain) was a decent person. He said to me privately that all people have a conscience. He said in the minds of the the prison guards, there are three categories of prisoners. “The first category is you,” he said, “so no need to explain.” The second category, he said, is those guilty of corruption—the larger social environment is just like this. The third category is ordinary criminals.
A few days later, he said that the reading room was ready. We then took 200 some books from the prison library to the reading room, including traditional cultural classics such as The Book of Songs, The Analects, and Instructions for Practical Living, as well as world classics such as Les Miserables and War and Peace.
The one that I cherished the most and kept for the entire three years I was there was The Federalist Papers.
Sixteen people lived in one cell. Robbery, murder, theft, drug trafficking, bribery and other crimes were all mixed together. A small society. These were hardened people to begin with, and when they were stuck together in such a harsh environment, they became worse –– it was a vicious cycle.
There were no mirrors in the prison. Anything that could injure a person was not allowed, so there was no glass, no bamboo sticks, etc.; they feared self-inflicted wounds.
In the first month at Liulin Prison, the labor was weeding and turning up the soil. We removed the weeds on both sides of the road and then turned the soil over and over again. It was a perversity on the part of the prison: they wouldn’t allow anything to grow freely, including weeds.
I then was sent to the large workshop to wrap chair frames with plastic wire. I didn’t want to earn credit to reduce my sentence. Labor was symbolic, so I’d do a little bit of cleaning, and occasionally I’d wrap a chair too.
An optimistic person can work everywhere, and wherever I am, there is space for me. My work was to think and write.
A rule was applied to me at the beginning: I could study half the time and do labor half the time. After I swept the floor, I read in a corner of the workshop.
The first two months were my “study period.” After that, the Superintendent and his deputy called me outside and said that prison rules stipulated that no reading was allowed in the workshop.
I said I must be allowed to read; if you don’t let me read, I will switch into total noncooperation, and you can just go ahead and send me to the “training team.”
The training team is a prison within a prison. In the beginning, you’re tied to a bed with iron chains 24 hours a day. Usually there’s a ceremony for those sent to the training team: a large meeting is held, the disciplinary violations are announced in a stern voice, the police raise the prisoners’ arms high overhead, press their heads down as low as possible, and hurriedly stuff them into a truck. It was the posture used for struggle sessions during the Cultural Revolution. For many people, that was a frightening place. I didn’t care. Actually, it’s perfect for a meditation retreat.
The Superintendent made concessions. “Well, just bring one book at a time.” A few months later, a floor supervisor found me reading a book in the workshop. The warden reminded me to be watchful. I said that my reading was out in the open, and I would never hide from anyone.
Outside the window, dusk fell. In the distance, the high-speed train hurled past. It connected the city and my life.
A huge white bird, flapping its wings, landed in Liulin. The northern coast was not far away. Many years ago, I listened to a big sister telling her story in the dark clouds and cold wintry wind of the northern coast. In the summer of 1989, it was the first time I, a wandering boy, came to see the sea, under the gloomy sky with several big ships and a few seagulls in view. I stayed with her until late at night, an atlas for a headrest, and fell asleep amid the sea breeze. It was the coast of Tanggu, not far away.
I stayed at Liulin for less than five months. In the late autumn. On October 22, , we were all transferred to Kenhua Prison (垦华监狱).
Kenhua is about ten kilometers from Liulin. There are several prisons in the area. This place called Chadian is an enclave of Beijing in Tianjin. Zhou Enlai is said to have chosen this wilderness to detain Kuomintang war criminals.
Kenhua means reclaiming China. The name is as suggestive as my hometown Minquan –– civil rights.
Kenhua was newly built, not big, and could accommodate 1,000 plus prisoners, but only 600 or 700 people were detained there. Ten people lived in one cell. There was less green there than Liulin. Liulin has pear-leaved crabapple groves, jujube forests, corn fields, and old willows everywhere. In Kenhua, the road had two rows of small trees on each side, and there was a wide expanse of clover growing in a clearing.
The biggest problem with the food was its monotony. If you only looked at the weekly menu, it was not too bad: salted vegetables and steamed buns in the morning and evening, stir-fry at noon, Monday cabbage, Tuesday eggplant, Wednesday potato slices…. Each week there were two dishes that included a bit of meat, and two meals of rice. But year in, year out, we only had these 10-20 dishes; we never saw anything else.
Each month, prisoners could fill out purchase orders for pig’s head meat, salted duck eggs, fruits, etc., but the types of extra food you could buy were always the same, year in and year out. There were only ever two kinds of fruit –– apples and oranges. I didn’t see any other fruits for several years. Picking a green onion or radishes from the ground behind the squad leader’s back was a great luxury.
Therefore a peach or a banana could be used as a reward for a labor competition for such a group of people who have seen the world.
What luxurious happiness it would be to be with two or three good friends, having a few small dishes at a food stall with a few bottles of beer on a summer evening!
There was no life here, only poetry and a distant place.
A happy time was when we collected debris. The prison was a tofu-dregs project with construction waste left everywhere, so going downstairs to the lawn to collect debris became frequent labor. There was a rich life amid the clover. The pill bug waited quietly, the little gray spider ran desperately, the praying mantis lifted its machete. And the ants were always busy.
That was their home. They didn’t know the high electrified walls, and they didn’t know the world outside. They were free.
Our space was much larger than that of the ants, but we felt the pain of lost freedom.
Humans don’t have wings to fly, nor fins to swim; we live and die on this planet like dust. I once lived like these ants, and didn’t feel it was painful. What’s habitual and constant is no suffering.
Freedom, pain, happiness, everything in this world is born because of comparison. So God created a hellish world.
To make it a perfect world and to turn life into an experience of happiness –– this is the meaning of life. My Longchang Yi.
I had a lot of time to think. Real, quiet thinking. On the outside, even if my phone is turned off, my mind still can’t settle down. But there, it was useless to ponder what was happening outside. I was relieved of those responsibilities, so I could really calm down.
For several days in a row I thought about the theory of special relativity, and for several consecutive days I thought about the question: what is time? I wanted to know the truth of the world, time, space, energy, quality, matter, life, humanity…
To be precise, I was quietly waiting for a divine revelation. All flashes of light and thought come from God, and all human knowledge comes from that ultimate spiritual homeland.
The progress of civilization means to know nature, to know oneself, and to know God, from a higher place.
Over the past 300 years, the understanding of nature and science has taken a big step forward, while the other foot, the understanding of God and religion, has remained in the same place.
People are animals looking up at the stars. We will always question our previous lives and the afterlife and be concerned about the meaning of life. We always longing for a refuge for the soul.
The roads of the past are old. This is the era of a new civilization.
I am blessed. I’ve received so much new knowledge. I know the truth of the world. I know the meaning of life. I wrote it down carefully, and saved it. I’m grateful for being on a sacred mission.
I still have a lot of time to long for you. When thinking of you, I stared out the window at the flowering crabapple in bloom and the green fields. It was another spring. I missed as I walked in the prisoners’ formation. Looking up at the sky, I saw a flock of ducks flying north to a distant nest. When I missed you, I gently plucked a four-leaf clover and I wanted to give it to you as a birthday present. I wanted to give you everything that was the best in this life. I missed you at a small corner in the noisy workshop as I pondered the fate of mankind. At this predestined place for meditation, you disturbed me, again and again, giving me life, happiness and longing.
My cellmate Tian Shudong (田树东) had lumbar disc surgery. He helped a friend collect debt, and was sentenced to 13 years for “robbery.” He once shared a cell with Zhao Lianhai (赵连海), a father imprisoned for his baby son who was one of the many victims of the tainted milk powder.
Every day Lai Huaichao (赖怀超), Wu Min (吴敏), myself, and a few others, used a stretcher to carry Tian to the workshop, and after work, we carried him back. Both of them were in for corruption. Wu Min studied physics at Nanjing University, so I often sought him out to discuss physics questions.
About 40% of the people in my ward were convicted of corruption. Among them there were six bureau-level officials; they were smart people and we were able to discuss philosophy together. Each month there were newcomers, and some would leave. When someone left, everyone else felt a little sunshine coming through.
In the last six months of my sentence, our cell had eight people: one Ph.D., two Masters, and three with undergraduate degrees. Several were in for corruption, one was a murderer, and one a robber. Old Li, who slept under me in the bunk, was the general manager of a state-owned enterprise, sentenced to twenty years for corruption and bribery. He had already served nine years, and still had nine to go. He had only received a two-year sentence reduction when a new policy prohibited sentence reductions for corruption offenders. He had shingles.
Tian Shudong was lying on the stretcher in the workshop. One day the political instructor saw him and shouted, get up! I almost lost my temper. One day, he made four prisoners raise their arms and tortured an inmate with mental-illness; I held back my anger, because there was important work to be completed.
In June 2016, after a heavy rain, during the night, the hallway was filled with vomiting sounds. I also had a stomach ache, but it was slight. By my estimate, 40 people were vomiting and had diarrhea; 80% of the inmates had fever, stomach pain and other symptoms. In the entire prison, more than 400 people were poisoned by food. We ruled out all kinds of possibilities and concluded that it was very likely a problem with the drinking water. A few days later at an assembly, the deputy prison warden mentioned this incident, and downplaying it, said that everyone should pay attention to personal hygiene. He was scared of speaking the truth.
It was the place predestined for my personal cultivation. I often thought: what is human nature? And I recalled that debate in the detention center.
My cellmates argued heatedly about whether they could steal from a hospital. They mainly stole mobile phones in the subway, and during a national holiday week they could make 50,000 to 80,000 RMB. Some mainly stole from the mall. There were also those who stole from patients in the hospitals.
Two people approved. The cell “boss” said, the thief is a profession that has existed since time immemorial. “It doesn’t matter if the cat’s white or black, as long as it’s able to make money, it’s a good cat.” He had been in Beijing for three decades since his teens, and he had bought a house and married. His was a history of personal struggles full of blood and tears. The other one who was unscrupulous about stealing from hospital patients was the young man who would later become the cell “boss.” He said that stealing is stealing, so “whatever.”
Four people felt uncertain about their takes: they didn’t support it nor did they oppose it.
Four people resolutely opposed it. Among them was Little Anyang. He was 21 years old; when he was nine he was tricked into going with a gang boss to Shanghai. Countless times, the boss beat him violently. Speaking about it, he was still fearful. This was his fourth prison run; the previous two times he was sentenced to one year each. Thieves like him normally were sentenced for the most part to one year or less, because the evidence that police were able to seize was usually just a single cell phone or a few hundred RMB.
He said, how can you steal money from a sick person? I will never do something like that!
Everyone has their own moral baseline. Everyone’s behavior is supported by their value system. “This society is just like this” is the reason many criminals give in defending themselves. That debate left me with such a deep impression. I often think, what is evil?
In the spiritual world of humanity, there lives an abundance of species, thoughts, and doctrines. They compete against each other to entice and dominate “I.” The “I” often struggles between temptations.
Robbery, theft, rape –– at that moment a species exceeds the rationality of normal people and dominates the “I.” Or, they lack the rationality of normal people. Under the control of certain value systems, the self becomes selfish and greedy.
Human nature is good. It won’t do things for evil purposes. To do evil is to be controlled by a certain species. Bad guys are actually sick people. Therefore, a civilized punishment is not “a tooth for a tooth” but is for redemption. In the new civilization, there is no hatred, no matter how much pain history has seen.
All people have a conscience. Therefore, I am always optimistic, believe in human nature, and believe in the power of conscience. Even at the darkest time, the depths of our souls are still sunny. We are made incomparably strong by the power of grace, and we are poised to be a reformed people and create history.
Spring Festival 2017. It was my last New Year there. Every festive season the cell was decorated with balloons and ribbons. It was sad on holidays. We had seven days off, three and a half days were for education, raising the flag, etc., and the rest of the time we played cards, chess, and watched TV. Everyone cared most about the better food: two meals with stir-fried meat dishes, and on the first and fifth day of the New Year, two dumpling meals.
In between holidays, the time was endless. Winter and spring were good times. New Year’s Day, Spring Festival, tomb-sweeping festival, May Day, Dragon Boat Festival, one by one, we looked forward to each. The hardest time was summer, for a long stretch of time, there was no holiday. It was very hot, and people were irritable. Every year, the theme of the three months of summer was “Safe Summer.”
In the bustling world outside, sometimes it was only when the leaves fluttered off the trees and fell onto your head that you would reminded of the arrival of the fall. But in prison, through the narrow window, through the thick bars, you could clearly see the river of time slowly passing by. The crabapples blossomed, bore fruit, their leaves fell, and the snow followed. The crabapples blossomed again.
I remembered the New Year’s Day of 1987, the sound of reading aloud under a kerosene lamp, the snow falling outside the window. I was a teenager and wrote down my dream for life in my diary. It’s been thirty years.
The road is long — the road leading to a free China, a beautiful China.
I’ve become a determined revolutionary. It’s not that I have changed my mind. It’s just that previously I always had illusions about others. It wasn’t that I put my faith in someone; what it was is that I was tempted by life and didn’t want to shoulder responsibility for this ancient people. But having watched CCTV “Evening News” for three years, a voice said: Stop evading your destiny.
One can work anywhere. One can cultivate oneself anywhere. With three busy years, I completed the most important thing in my life. I wrote down more than 200,000 characters by hand, and hand copied it twice. I had finished my mission two months before I was released from prison. I breathed a long sigh of relief.
Carefully, I read The Federalist Papers one more time, and returned it to the library. I reread the Bible, the Koran, and some Buddhist and Taoist books. I pondered the citizens’ movement, the political transformation, and my beautiful China.
North of the Great Wall, south of the Yangtze, the Kunlun mountains, the East China Sea. The sun has risen in the east for 5,000 years. This vast and beautiful land has seen vicissitudes. I am your child, China; suffering and hardship belong to me, so do glory and pride.
An honest, fair, and kind-hearted people will sustain a new civilization. A perfect world under the sun. Freedom, justice, love, and a beautiful China. Freedom, justice, love, and a beautiful China.
Exactly at midnight on July 15, 2017, the warden woke me up in a friendly voice: hurry, get going, go home. I said, what about my notebooks? Earlier I had handed them over for examination. Let’s talk about it at the gate, he said. I was tricked. I went out the main gate and asked for my nine notebooks. They didn’t give them back to me, they didn’t even give me a receipt. I gave up after nearly two hours of impasse. Many friends were waiting for me, and some had to overcome layers of obstacles to get closer to the prison. Thank you all!
I’m back, China.
Citizen Xu Zhiyong, July 2018
 Xu Zhiyong was arrested on July 16, 2013.
 Zhou Bin (周滨) was the son of Zhou Yongkang (周永康), a former member of the CCP Standing Committee and the former secretary of the Central Political and Legal Affairs Commission.
 A large group of migrant parents and volunteers gathered outside the Beijing Municipal Education Commission on February 28, 2013, petitioning that their children be allowed to take college entrance exams in Beijing where they lived, not back to their hometown where their household registrations was.
 In October, 2005, while visiting the blind lawyer Chen Guangcheng in Linyi, Shandong, Xu Zhiyong was beaten up by thugs taking order from the local government.
 Xu Zhiyong spent a semester at Yale Law School in 2004 as a visiting scholar.
 Longchang yi is where the Ming Dynasty Neo-Confucian official and philosopher Wang Yangming was exiled in today’s Guizhou for protesting official corruption.
 This is a variation on Deng Xiaoping’s famous quote: “It doesn’t matter whether a cat is black or white, as long as it catches mice.”
Who Is Xu Zhiyong (1) — An Interview with Dr. Teng Biao, April 10, 2014.
Who Is Xu Zhiyong (2) — An Interview with Dr. Teng Biao, April 13, 2014.
Yaxue Cao, March 21, 2018
Rights Movement Spread All Over the Country
By 2004, Zhao Yan and Li Baiguang were under constant threat. Fuzhou police told the village deputies that Zhao and Li were criminals, and demanded that the deputies expose the two. The Fujian municipal government also dispatched a special investigation team to the hometowns of Li and Zhao to look into their family backgrounds. A public security official in Fu’an said: “Don’t you worry that Zhao and Li are still on the lam — that’s because it’s not time for their date with the devil just yet. Just wait till that day comes: we’ll grab them, put them in pig traps, and toss them into the ocean to feed the sharks!”
On September 17, 2004, Zhao Yan was arrested by over 20 state security agents while at a Pizza Hut in Shanghai. At that point he had already left the China Reform magazine and was working as a research assistant in the Beijing office of The New York Times. He was accused of leaking state secrets, denied a lawyer for several months, and eventually sentenced to three years on charges of fraud.
On December 14, 2004, Li Baiguang and three lawyers, while on their way to Fu’an to handle a rights defense case that was likely a trap, were hemmed in by police vehicles and arrested. Li was accused of illegally providing legal services, because he did not possess a law license. On the evening of December 21, a dozen police officers from Fu’an broke into Li’s apartment in Beijing, pried open his cabinets, and confiscated his hard drives and documents related to dismissing officials.
Thanks to the efforts of his friend Yu Meisun and a host of liberal intellectuals and journalists, Li Baiguang was released on bail after 37 days in custody. December to January are the coldest months of the year in Fujian, and there was no heating. In a cell with dozens of people, Li Baiguang recalled later, “I wore a suit, and it was cold. As a form of punishment, they told the cell boss to make me bathe in freezing seawater every day. I lost a lot of hair, and lost so much weight that my cheekbones protruded. When I came out my nephew hardly recognized me.”
The removal of officials between 2003 and 2004 was one of the key campaigns that initiated the rights defense movement, and one of the largest-scale rights defense activities in China. Around the same time, rights defense initiatives took place. During the Sun Zhigang (孙志刚) Incident in March 2003, three Peking University law PhDs, Xu Zhiyong (许志永), Yu Jiang (俞江) and Teng Biao (腾彪) wrote a letter to the National People’s Congress, demanding that they conduct a constitutional review of the law “Administrative Measures for Assisting Vagrants and Beggars with No Means of Support in Cities” (《城市流浪乞讨人员收容遣送办法》). He Weifang (贺卫方), Xiao Han (萧瀚), He Haibo (何海波), and two other well-known legal scholars demanded that the NPC conduct an investigation into how the ‘administrative measures,’ commonly known as ‘custody and repatriation,’ were actually being implemented. Gao Zhisheng began defending Falun Gong practitioners in court, demanded that the government respect freedom of belief, and called for the torture against practitioners to cease. Numerous other lawyers and legal scholars also began taking up human rights defense cases, bringing them to public consciousness. Other notable cases of the period included the defence of Hebei private entrepreneur Sun Dawu (孙大午), who was accused of ‘illegal fundraising’; the case of injured investors in the Shanbei oil fields; the case of Christian Cai Zhuohua (蔡卓华) who was arrested for printing the Bible; the Southern Metropolis Daily editor and manager Cheng Yizhong (程益中) and Yu Huafeng (喻华峰) who were punished for reporting on the Sun Zhigang case and broke the news of SARS; the ‘Three Servants’ religious case that involved hundreds of believers; the libel case against the authors of the Survey of Chinese Peasants (《中国农民调查》), and other incidents.
In fall of 2003 Xu Zhiyong, Teng Biao, and Zhang Xingshui (张星水) founded the organization Sunshine Constitutionalism (阳光宪政) in Beijing, later changing its name to the Open Constitution Initiative (公盟). Gongmeng, as it’s often known per the Chinese title, became a hub — and incubator — for human rights lawyers and legal activists. They held a meeting nearly every week, and Li Baiguang was one of the regular participants.
In the winter of 2003 there was an upsurge in the participation of independent candidates in People’s Representative elections in Beijing, and a number of these candidates were successful.
Many independent NGOs focused on environmental protection, AIDS control and prevention, women’s rights, and disabled rights, had sprung up in Beijing and other cities. They used the law and advocacy to propagate rights awareness.
Entering 2005, the dismissal of officials in Taishi Village (太石村), Guangdong Province, as well as the Linyi Family Planning Case in Shandong (临沂计生案), became public events involving lawyers, public intellectuals, and citizen activists from around the country.
At the end of 2005, Hong Kong’s Asia Weekly magazine highlighted 14 human rights lawyers and legal scholars, including Li Baiguang, as 2005 People of the Year. It said that “these 14 rights defense lawyers aren’t afraid of power; they wield the constitution as a weapon, harness the power of the internet, and work to defend the rights of the 1.3 billion Chinese people granted in their own constitution, while pushing for the establishment of democracy and rule of law in China.” In the ensuing years, with the exception of one or two, these 14 lawyers and scholars would be arrested, tortured, disappeared, disbarred, or forced into exile. Still, the grassroots rights defense movement they helped to kick off would continue to expand, and gain new energy in the age of social media. We shall not elaborate on that here.
‘Turning into an Ant’
In late July 1999, after publishing Samuel Smiles’ “The Huguenots in France” (issued under the Chinese title “The Power of of Faith” 《信仰的力量》) , Li Baiguang went to a church in the Haidian district of Beijing, bought a copy of the Bible, and began to read it. In January 2005 after he was released from prison, he began attending the Ark Church in Beijing (北京方舟教会) to study the Bible and pray. The Ark Church was a meeting place for many dissidents, rights lawyers, Tiananmen massacre victims, and petitioners — and for this reason the house church suffered regular harassment by the police. On July 30, 2005, Li was baptized in a reservoir in Huairou (怀柔), Beijing. He loudly proclaimed his witness, telling of the several times in his life when he brushed shoulders with death. He spoke of the time that an inner voice told him to stop, as he was considering plunging to his death from a building at university. He told of the catastrophes he escaped in 1998, 2001, and then in 2004. He spoke of the cumulative impact that Samuel Smiles’ books had on him, and, finally, he expressed his gratitude to Jesus.
He began to tremble violently as he read, and only after the baptism was complete and he had sat down a while did it subside.
For Li Baiguang, the freedom of the mind and soul and political freedom are simply two sides of the same coin. In 2000, while translating Smiles, Li wrote an essay titled “The Fountainhead of Modern Freedom is the Freedom of Individual Conscience” (《现代自由的源头是个体的良心自由》). He came to believe that only faith can shape and form conscience, and further, that the emergence of individual conscience is the origin and basis of freedom. This also makes it the source of the courage and motivation to fight for freedom and against despotism. He doesn’t believe that the widespread failure of Chinese to distinguish right and wrong, and the country’s moral decay, can be laid entirely at the feet of the Communist Party’s dictatorship.
In April 2006, in a session of “The Middle Forum” (《中道论坛》) with Fan Yafeng, Chen Yongmiao (陈永苗), and Qiu Feng (秋风), Li said he was tired of liberal intellectuals’ decades-long discussions of grand themes like constitutional governance, reform, and future China. He described his own turning point of involvement in actual, real life rights defense work. Of the eight years between 1997 and 2005, he said, he too spent the first five focused on all sorts of macro abstractions. “Recently I’ve had a realization: I’m willing to become an ant. I want to take the rights and freedoms in the books and, through case after case, bring them into the real world bit by bit. This is my personal stance. The path to this is legal procedure. In summer, the ant gathers food. Today, I’m also transporting food under the framework of rights defense, and in doing so accumulating experience and results for the arrival of the day of constitutional government.”
“According to the principles of political mechanics, it’s impossible to change minds overnight in such a large system. All you can do is loosen the screws one by one and turn the soil over clump by clump,” he said. Li held high hopes in the future of the nascent rights defense movement, and the gradual dismantling of autocracy from the margins. He thought that the rights defense movement would be crucial to China’s future establishment of a constitutional democracy.
This was the first time he proposed the ‘ant’ idea. In the years afterward, this is how he characterized his work and it became very familiar to his friends.
In May 2005, the Midland, Texas-based NGO China Aid, as well as the Institute on Chinese Law & Religion, invited seven Chinese rights lawyers and legal scholars to join a “China Freedom Summit.” Among those invited, Gao Zhisheng, Fan Yafeng, and Zhang Xingshui were blocked from leaving China; Li Baiguang, Wang Yi, Yu Jie, and Guo Feixiong were able to make it to the United States. Li Baiguang delivered a speech at the Hudson Institute titled “The Legal Dimensions of Religious Freedom: Reality and Prospects in China.” It proposed a systematic approach for defending religious freedom according to the law in China, and included the following actions:
- Submit an application to the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress for constitutional review of laws, regulations and policies related to freedom of religious belief, and demand the annulment of unconstitutional laws that infringe upon religious freedom;
- Apply for religious services for prisoners in detention centres, prisons, and re-education camps in China who believe in God, or have come to believe while in detention, and send the gospel of Jesus Christ to all of the above detention facilities;
- Provide relief to Christians whose religious freedom has been infringed upon by agents of the state;
- Provide restitution to Christians who have had their persons or their residences illegally searched by agents of the state;
- Provide restitution to Christians who are being subjected to re-education through forced labor;
- Provide restitution to Christians or Christian organizations who have been punished with large fines;
- Provide restitution for those who have been harmed by the dereliction of duty of state organs.
On May 8, while at the Midland office of China Aid for one week of Bible study, the group learned that they would be granted a meeting with President Bush in the White House. On the morning of May 11, President Bush met with Yu Jie, Wang Yi, Li Baiguang, China Aid director Bob Fu, and Institute on Chinese Law & Religion director Deborah Fikes, in the Yellow Oval Room.
Li Baiguang presented President Bush with a gift — a copy of a proposal to make a documentary titled “American Civilization.” It was exquisitely designed by the artist Meng Huang (孟煌). In 2003, Li and his intellectual friends in Beijing designed together two major documentary projects. One of them was a 30-episode series that would introduce the democratic experience in 30 countries. Another, “American Civilization,” would be a 100-episode documentary series that would provide Chinese people a comprehensive introduction to the establishment of America, including its political life, its judicial system, education system, and religious beliefs. “I want to make it a television special for the education of the public,” Li said. He established the Beijing Qimin Research Center (北京启民研究中心) to push the plans forward, but in the end the two ambitious projects were aborted.
The three Christians from China being received by President Bush was, at the time, a major news story. But for the ten years following, the meeting with the U.S. President was remembered more for a controversy that surrounded it: the so-called “rejecting Guo incident.” This is a reference to the fact that Guo Feixiong was excluded from the meeting, purportedly by Yu Jie and Wang Yi, who argued that the meeting was for Christians only and Guo should not attend because he was not a Christian. Later, Li Baiguang expressed his regret that this had taken place. He told rights defense lawyer Tang Jitian (唐吉田) that if it didn’t occur, along with the enormous acrimony around it, the different groups in Chinese civil society might have been more unified and stronger.
Also during this trip to the U.S., Li was invited by Bob Fu to be China Aid’s legal consultant. When Li returned to China, he said in a 2010 interview, apart from his regular rights defense work, he “traveled across the country to provide legal support to persecuted house churches.” Li partnered with China Aid in this fashion until his death.
During that same period, Li sat the bar, passed, and became a lawyer. In December 2007 he hung his shingle with the Common Trust Law Firm (共信律师事务所) in Weigongcun, near Peking University.
In June 2008, Li and six other Chinese dissidents and rights lawyers were awarded the National Endowment for Democracy’s Democracy Award.
Li Baiguang was among the 303 initial signatories of Charter 08. But after that point he gradually retired from the media and public spotlight. “Although the substance of my rights defense work has not changed,” he said in the 2010 interview, “my methods are more low-key and moderate than before. I no longer write articles attacking and castigating the authorities; all I want to do now is actually see implemented the laws that they themselves wrote, and win for victims the rights and freedoms that they should enjoy.”
Over the following years Li, as a lawyer, left his footprints in every Chinese province except Tibet, acting as defense counsel in several hundred cases of persecuted Christians. The cases he was involved in include: the Shanghai Wanbang Church in 2009 (上海万邦教会), petitioning for Uighur church leader Alimjan Yimiti (阿里木江) in 2009, the 2010 Guangzhou Liangren Church case (广州良人教会), the 2010 Shuozhou Church case in Shanxi (山西朔州), the 2012 Pingdingshan Church case in Henan (河南平顶山) , the 2014 Nanle case (南乐), and the Cao Sanqiang (曹三强) case in 2017, among others.
As for the result of defending house churches, Li Baiguang summed it up in 2010 as follows: “If we look at the outcome of the administrative review of every rights case, the judgment has ruled against the church almost without exception. But later, I found a very strange phenomenon: after the conflict dies down, looking back a year later, we find that the local public security and religious bureaus no longer dare storm and raid these house churches, and congregants can meet freely. Using the law as a weapon to defend religious freedom works. Where we’ve fought cases, churches and religious activities in the area have since been little disrupted.”
During the same period, Li also defended numerous dissidents, rights lawyers, activists, petitioners, and peasants entangled in compensation disputes. These include Guo Feixiong’s appeal in 2009, the Zhu Yufu (朱虞夫) case in 2011, the lawsuit filed against the government in 2013 by Wang Xiuying (王秀英) for being sent to re-education through forced labor during the Olympic Games, the defense of lawyers Zhang Kai (张凯) and Liu Peng (刘鹏) in 2015, as well as the defense of 709 lawyer Xie Yanyi (谢燕益) in 2015, the mass arrest in Wuxi on April 16, 2016, the commemoration of the June 4 massacre by seven citizens in 2016, the mass arrests in Fuzhou as well as Suzhou during the G20 in 2016, and the defense of lawyer Li Yuhan (李昱函) in 2017.
While he was engaged in all this, Li also held rights defense training sessions for house churches around China. According to Bob Fu, director of China Aid, over the last roughly ten years, Li has trained several thousands people; the most recent was in January 2018 in Henan — conducted while he was lying on his back after he injured his leg, as church leaders from the local district gathered around to hear him discuss how they should defend their rights according to the law.
Between 2011 and 2013, Li taught in a number of training sessions for “barefoot lawyers” under the aegis of the “Chinese Urgent Action Working Group” (中国维权紧急援助组). In 2016 he also helped with a workshop for independent candidates for People’s Deputies elections. The Chinese Urgent Action Working Group is an NGO founded by the Swede Peter Dahlins, American Michael Caster, and rights lawyer Wang Quanzhang in 2009, offering legal training to rights defense lawyers and funding cases.
Li was extremely dedicated and hardworking, according to Dahlins. He focused on details, followed guidelines, and was always a long term thinker. Dahlins often joked with Michael Caster that Li Baiguang, who had met presidents and prime ministers, dressed and looked like a peasant.
Li also took part, with other human rights lawyers and activists, in trainings on the United Nations’ human rights mechanisms in Geneva under the aegis of Chinese Human Rights Defenders (维权网), an NGO that promotes human rights and rule of law in China.
In around 2009, the 40-year-old Li, who had been single his whole life, married his former college friend Xu Hanmei (徐寒梅). In around 2010 they moved to Jurong (句容), a small city near Nanjing in Jiangsu Province, and settled down in a village called Desadoufu (得撒豆腐村). The name Desa comes from the Hebrew “Tirzah,” a Canaanite town mentioned in the Old Testament; the village, originally known for its stone mills used to grind soybeans for tofu, got its name from a church established by Western missionaries. It’s since become a tourist attraction for its pseudo-classical building complexes meant to recall the past.
Most residents in the town are Christians, Li Baiguang told friends. The community built its own kindergarten and elementary school, vegetable gardens, and sports pitch. “I felt like they built their own little Shangri-La,” Yang Zili said.
The Jianxi Church (涧西教会) that Li was associated with is the largest in the area, with around 200 stable congregants, most of whom were like Li: well-educated, having moved permanently to the village from elsewhere in China. For weekend church service, parishioners and catechumen (gradual converts) came from Zhejiang, Shanghai, Anhui and elsewhere, packing the church to the rafters. For these reasons, the church came to be watched closely by local religious affairs officials.
‘The night is nearly over; the day is almost here’
Li Baiguang was not part of any of the public incidents that have been brought to national attention by activists and netizens since 2008. In the mass arrests during the Jasmine Revolution of 2011, Li was not among them. When the New Citizens Movement became active between 2012 and 2013 and activists held regular dinner events, Li did not get involved. He wasn’t even part of the Chinese Human Rights Lawyers Group (人权律师团), founded in 2013. The 709 mass arrests of human rights lawyers didn’t implicate him, though for a while he signed up for being a defense counsel for 709 detainee lawyer Xie Yanyi. Numerous human rights lawyers have been barred from leaving the country; Li, on the other hand, traveled back and forth to America at will from 2006 to 2018.
Even when he was given trouble by police and state security, he did his best not to go public with it.
Per his own assessment in 2010, the authorities were “tolerating me to a much greater degree.” But his state of hypervigilance tells another story. A friend, Zheng Leguo (郑乐国), said that whenever he was with Li Baiguang in public places, Li would quickly scan his eyes over everyone in the vicinity to detect anything out of order. He was extremely careful about what he ate. When they ate at McDonalds, Li chose a table near the door, that way he could see people coming in and going out, and he could also escape at a moment’s notice if need be.
For Li Baiguang, 2017 was a disturbing year.
In January, he traveled to Washington, D.C. for the 15th anniversary of China Aid held at the Library of Congress. It was an invitation only event. During his remarks, Li said that apart from the suppression of civil society and human rights lawyers, attacks against house churches were also getting more severe. “From this point forward, human rights in China will enter its darkest period.” He added that rights defenders in China would use their God-given wisdom and intelligence to promote human rights, democracy, and the rule of law; he also called on the international community and NGOs to do what they could to help. “The night is nearly over; the day is almost here,” he said, citing Romans 13.
Li’s remarks were somehow leaked, according to Bob Fu, and reached the Chinese authorities — when Li returned home was treated “with severity.”
On October 17, 2017, a case Li was defending, involving seafood farmers in Wenling, Zhejiang, suing the government for malfeasance, went to trial. In the evening as Li was returning to his hotel, he was abducted by a dozen unidentified men. They took him to a forest and worked him over. They slammed their fists into his head and ordered him to leave the city by 10:00 a.m. the next morning, or else they would decapitate him and cut off his hands and feet. “When he mentioned that kidnapping,” Bob Fu said, “it was the most frightened I had seen him. The incident shook him badly.”
Another case Li took on in 2017 involved the apparent murder of a certain Pastor Han, of Korean ethnicity, in Jilin, northeastern China. Han was a pastor in the Three-Self Patriotic Movement who provided aid to North Korean refugees, and encouraged them to return to North Korea and spread the Gospel. It appeared that he was assassinated by North Korean operatives.
Towards the end of the year, Li met with the Beijing-based AFP journalist Joanna Chiu. After they met in a Starbucks, Li led her out into a small alley, across the street, and into another coffeeshop in order to avoid surveillance. He told Ms. Chiu how he’d been beaten, and also the suspicious death of the pastor.
In early February 2018, Li was invited to the National Prayer Breakfast, an annual event dedicated to the discussion of religion in public life, attended by thousands, including the U.S. president, policymakers, and religious and business leaders. Bob Fu, in an interview with VOA after Li’s death, said that when Li was in the U.S. from February 5-11, the pastor of Jianxi Church was questioned about the whereabouts of Li and what he was doing in the United States. After he got back to China, he spoke with Fu twice, explaining that he was being investigated, and that danger felt imminent.
At 3:00 a.m. on February 26, 2018, Li Baiguang died in the Nanjing No. 81 PLA Hospital. In response to the widespread shock and suspicion, his family announced that he had died of late-stage liver cancer.
The death of Li Baiguang, like the death of Liu Xiaobo seven months ago, brings with it a momentous sense of ending. The PRC’s neo-totalitarian state grows more complete by the day; the discourse of political reform represented by Charter 08, and the rule-of-law trajectory sought by the rights defense movement, have hit a wall. Neither have room to expand. One by one, little by little, opportunities for further progress have been sealed and nixed. Truly, a ‘new era’ in China has begun.
The night is long; the worst is yet to come. Li Baiguang has died, like Liu Xiaobo, like Yang Tianshui, like Cao Shunli and all those who have fallen in the dark, but they live on; they are sparks of fire in the journey through night.
 They are Xu Zhiyong, Gao Zhisheng, Teng Biao, Pu Zhiqiang, Mo Shaoping, Li Baiguang, Zheng Enchong, Guo Feixiong, Li Heping, Fan Yafeng, Zhang Xingshui, Chen Guangcheng, and Zhu Jiuhu (许志永、高智晟、滕彪、浦志强、莫少平、李柏光、郑恩宠、郭飞雄、郭国汀、李和平、范亚峰、张星水、陈光诚以及朱久虎).
 The Institute on Chinese Law & Religion was registered in Washington, DC. It is now inactive.
Yaxue Cao edits this website. Follow her on Twitter @yaxuecao
Read it in Chinese 《蚂蚁的力量：纪念李柏光律师》
Xu Zhiyong, November 19, 2017
Dr. Xu Zhiyong (许志永) was released on July 15, 2017 after serving four years for organizing social movements such as the New Citizen Movement and the equal education rights campaign. He is a 44-year-old legal scholar, a pioneer of China’s rights defense movement, and a founders of the Open Constitution Initiative (Gong Meng 公盟) in 2003 which offers legal assistance to the disempowered and the wronged. — The Editors
After getting out of prison I discovered a pessimistic sentiment in many of my friends. Some of them fled China. Others said that the Chinese people aren’t worth saving. With this totalitarian surveillance state and its repressed people, it feels like history is running in reverse. But I’m an optimist at heart and I remain optimistic. I see that authoritarianism is actually weakening, while the strength of liberty and democracy is on the rise. More and more citizens have woken up.
The authoritarian ideology, once powerful beyond compare, is in rout. The last few years have seen challenges to economic growth and nationalism—the pillars of legitimacy in the age of reform and opening up [China’s economic and social reforms beginning in the 1980s]. The economy is in recession, and nationalism has met with setbacks in the Diaoyu Islands and along the Sino-Indian frontier. Confucianism and other aspects of traditional Chinese culture are incompatible with Communism. A privileged class predicated on profit is sure to be brittle and weak. As we can see from the example of Yuan Shikai (袁世凯),* rule by vested interests betrays the current of history. When the time comes, it collapses overnight.
China’s finances are in a bad way. The economy relies on a monetary policy of forced stimulation that has reached a dead end. Endless sums are created, lent, and spent on inefficient infrastructure investments, betraying the principles of economics and making financial crisis unavoidable. The split Party and civil administration are almost like a double government, the hierarchies are multitudinous, and the burden upon the people is among the highest in the world. State revenues decrease while the cost of maintaining stability rises rapidly. Just like the imperial dynasties in their final years, today’s financial situation is dire.
However, the biggest uncertainty comes from the central leadership. Chinese officials are unenthusiastic and shirk their responsibilities by deferring everything to orders from above. Totalitarian systems are doomed to grow weaker over the generations as factional compromise saps the regime’s core strength and places mediocrities in positions of power. Even if there is someone who wants to restore the old order, his efforts will lead nowhere. He is ridiculed, not revered, by the majority. The leader is the greatest uncertainty of the system and indeed of the entire country.
Meanwhile, society is marching forward. Private wealth is increasing. Technology is improving, the world is becoming one. Pro bono lawyers, entrepreneurs of social care, independent intellectuals, and victims of the powers-at-large, the number of awakened Chinese citizens has increased during these four years [while I was in prison].
But we are still relatively scattered. How to concentrate the powerful energy of civil society is an urgent task that demands our full responsibility.
What does China need most for its social transformation? A mature civil society. If there is a mature civil society, we will incur fewer costs and a beautiful future awaits. Revolution is not the design of any one individual. Our responsibility is not to knock down walls—though of course, living freely and candidly is equal to knocking down walls. It would be irresponsible for us to wait for change. Our responsibility lies in construction, constructing ourselves as a civil body.
Is civil society possible? There is space for it. The critical matter is what is to be done, how it is to be done, and to which degree. We need to be wise and methodical. To build civil society and unite those Chinese who seek democracy and constitutional rule on one platform, I offer six key phrases.
The citizen is a common identity. This identity conveys rich inner meanings of power and responsibility, it implies a society and nation of citizens. The day that 1.3 billion Chinese are citizens is the day that China is truly beautiful. To become genuine citizens is our present and final objective. More importantly, citizenship can be an identity—yours, mine, everyone’s common identity. We can’t say “you are democracy, I am democracy,” but we can say “you are a citizen, I am a citizen.” This concept has roots in China over a century old. It cannot be taken from us or censored. However fearful people may be in private, all can come out and say “I am a citizen.”
Freedom, Justice, and Love are our shared core values. These values ought to be the new height following freedom, equality, and fraternity, the desired values of a future society. Freedom is the true sovereignty of individual action and existence, its scope expands with the development of civilization. Justice means a fair and just society—its meaning is richer than the egalitarianism that was once applied to the stratified French society. It is a society with democracy, rule of law, and rational boundaries between individuals—each to his own, each to his ability, each is provided for. Love is more generous and profound than fraternity; it is the wellspring of life and happiness.
One day these will become the core values of Chinese civilization. They don’t come from our ancestors. The core values of France—liberté, égalité, fraternité—were not those of the nobility, they were created by the people of France during their great revolution. Creating Freedom, Justice, and Love is the struggle of our generation of Chinese. For our ancient people and their civilization, these values will usher in renaissance and take common root across all humanity.
Truth shall be the common guiding principle in our actions. To be a true citizen. To uphold the citizen’s identity, rights, and responsibilities. To uphold and proactively implement the freedoms and rights written in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the Chinese Constitution. Late-stage totalitarianism also preaches democracy and liberty, but it doesn’t really mean it. In its crowning absurdity, the core values of socialism have become sensitive phrases and subject to online censorship. We uphold these things. The truth is the ultimate deconstruction of lies and absurdity, and the greatest tool for building a beautiful China. The 1.3 billion Chinese need not take radical action. If they all took the rights contained in the Constitution seriously, China would change.
A Beautiful China is our common direction. The China of our dreams is not only beautiful, but also free, just, and happy. A beautiful China encompasses beauty, but even more so embodies deeper values of democracy, rule of law, and freedom. Freedom, Justice, and Love is our direction, it is our mission and glory. Ours shall be a beautiful country reborn on the land where authoritarianism reigned for thousands of years. This is our purpose in life.
Citizens are not an isolated circle. Say not “you citizens,” but “we citizens.” Do not reject the noble identity of citizen just because some unscrupulous people may appropriate this title. Lawyers, entrepreneurs, intellectuals, judges, civil servants, regardless of your wealth, social class, you are citizens. All us Chinese shall identity as citizens. We may not necessarily all eat at the same table, lawyers and entrepreneurs may have their own circles, but our identity is a common one—the citizen.
The force of liberal democracy must be united. The identity of “citizen” is the best platform and the most solid cornerstone. Regardless of your social status or group, we are working forward together to a common goal. Communities of citizens can rise in each region and every industry. Assemble together, stay in touch with current affairs, and when the timing is favorable, take steps to coordinate with each other, for example by meeting on the last Saturday of each month. When millions and millions of Chinese assemble with the same identity, the same core values, and discuss the fate of the country and the people, they will have begun to form a civil body.
Being a citizen and building civil society does not equal being under someone’s leadership or joining some organization, it means independently wanting to be a citizen among citizens. Citizens in different regions act autonomously and make progress of their own accord. A community of citizens and civil society is necessarily an organic development.
Being a citizen, especially being a community of citizens, means standing up to oppression. If you abandon your identity in the face of pressure and don’t even want to be a citizen anymore, then you will have nothing to show for it. As the common body that shows the way towards social progress, the only way to build strength is to experience oppression and learn from the experience. If even the simple act of a same city dinner gathering (同城聚餐) means suppression, so be it. But this requires our perseverance. When the days comes that we are not even allowed to eat, there is still no problem: just go on hunger strike for a day. Even better, everyone go on hunger strike for a day. Have faith: your identity as a citizen can withstand oppression. It cannot be taken away from you.
I earnestly beseech every one of my compatriots seeking democracy and liberty to know their identity as a citizen and its significance. Be a dignified and upright citizen together with those who share your ideals and ambition, discuss with them when you meet, follow current affairs, spread the citizen’s ideal, and uphold social justice. If you are entrepreneurs, you can seek like-minded friends among your business circles and gather as citizen entrepreneurs. If you are lawyers, you can seek the like-minded among your legal circles and gather as citizen lawyers. If you are judges, you can discover the like-minded and gather as citizen judges. You have common ideals regardless of your professional fields, your wealth, or status. Seek out and join hands with the citizens by your sides.
I am a citizen, we are citizens. This is a pious faith. This is our responsibility to an ancient people. This is the struggle of our generation of Chinese, its undertaking, and its glory.
Citizen Xu Zhiyong (许志永)
*Yuan Shikai was a general of the former Qing Dynasty who manipulated China’s republican movement in an attempt to establish his own dictatorship. His actions contributed to the chaotic warlord era.
Who Is Xu Zhiyong — An Interview with Dr. Teng Biao, Part 1 of 2, April 10, 2014.
Who Is Xu Zhiyong — An Interview with Dr. Teng Biao, part 2 of 2, April 13, 2014.
China Change, July 15, 2017
Dr. Xu Zhiyong (许志永), leader of the New Citizens Movement, was released from prison on July 15, after serving a 4-year sentence.
Xu Zhiyong’s defense lawyer Zhang Qingfang (张庆方) confirmed that Dr. Xu has returned home in Beijing. He was picked up earlier by the security police, a source said.
Yesterday, scores of citizens traveled to the vicinity of Kenhua Prison in Ninghe District in Tianjin where Xu Zhiyong had been imprisoned since he was sentenced in February 2014. Dr. Xu, 44 years old, is a legal scholar and the founder of Gongmeng, a civil society group that pioneered China’s “rights defense movement” and in recent years campaigned for equal education rights for migrant workers’ children in large cities, and engaged in citizen activism under the banner “Freedom, Justice, and Love.”
The crackdown on the New Citizens Movement began in April 2013. Xu Zhiyong was arrested in July 2013.
Friends who tried to visit Xu this morning were blocked by three plainclothes security agents at the entrance of his residential compound. It’s unclear whether Dr. Xu will be placed under some kind of restriction in his movement and communications — illegal but common practices used by the Chinese government against leading dissidents.
Yesterday, activists who went to the prison to welcome Dr. Xu found that the roads around the prison were closed, allowing only inbound traffic. During the night, police raided the guest rooms of the activists. On the morning of the 15th, police stopped activists approaching the prison, telling them that Xu Zhiyong had been released already.
On July 13, Liu Xiaobo, the founder of China’s political opposition movements and the only imprisoned Nobel Peace Prize laureate in the world, died in custody from liver cancer, marking, some say, the end of an era and with it the hope of a gradual transition to democracy in China.
Dr. Xu is a leader of the younger generation of Chinese activists; he returns, four years later, to a much harsher environment for political opposition.
The China Manifesto – detained activist Xu Zhiyong calls for end to ‘barbaric’ one party rule, The Telegraph, January 23, 2014.
Who Is Xu Zhiyong — An Interview with Dr. Teng Biao, Part One, April 10, 2014.
Who Is Xu Zhiyong — An Interview with Dr. Teng Biao, Part Two, April 13, 2014.
November 1, 2016
Updated on November 17: 5-minute BBC video tells everything you need to know about Chinese elections.
Yaxue Cao: This year is also an election year in China, with county- and district-level elections of People’s Representatives on November 15. Independent candidates have sprung up everywhere, and China Change recently ran an article about the independent candidates from Beijing, including the group of 18 organized by Beijing resident Ye Jinghuan (野靖环). Over the months leading up to the vote, they’ve held training sessions on election law and the electoral process — some of which was presented by lawyers. But since their announcement of candidacy, they’ve been harassed by police. On the first day (October 24) of their neighborhood campaign, police came and stopped some of them from leaving home, and blocked interviews with foreign media. Some candidates elsewhere in China have been subject to criminal or administrative detention.
Hu Ping: Right, that’s what happened. I’ve also been following this news.
Yaxue Cao: This is unbelievable given that we both experienced the Haidian District People’s Representatives elections at Peking University in the fall of 1980. You were a graduate student in philosophy at the time, one of candidates who got elected. Now, 36 years later, China has changed in almost every way — yet in all these 36 years, no progress has been made to expand elections. Not only has it not changed, in fact it’s worse than it was 36 years ago. This is why I wanted to speak with you about elections in China today: the fact that there has been zero change on this, over more than three decades, is an important lens through which to evaluate China politically.
So first, please explain to us: what are “grassroots elections”?
Hu Ping: There are two kinds of grassroots elections in China: those at the county and district level for electing the deputies to the People’s Congress, and those for electing the head of a village. Both are direct elections. Before the Cultural Revolution there were similar elections that I participated in once when I was in senior high school — it was a single-candidate election (等额选举). This means that when you wanted to elect a representative, there was only one candidate. And that candidate had been selected in advance by the higher-ups — there was no competitive process, and the whole thing was just a formality. It was a joke.
After the Cultural Revolution, Chinese society had been ravaged, and there was a sense that China needed democracy. Even the Party conservatives thought that these were just grassroots elections, and allowing the people to vote in a few petty bureaucrats wouldn’t impact anything. In 1980, the Party center promulgated a new election law, which said that apart from the regular channels of nominating candidates—social organizations [affiliated with the Party], Party organizations, and unions [controlled by the Party]—individual citizens can also nominate themselves to be candidates, as long as they have three people to second their nomination. The updated rules also stated that candidates could engage in publicity. This was an opening for electioneering in China.
Back then, the elections weren’t held at the same time across the country. For instance, Shanghai’s and Sichuan’s were a bit earlier in the year, and Beijing’s was held last. This was probably because Beijing is the political capital, and political passions there run hotter than elsewhere. Stacking Beijing last was about limiting the influence of the elections.
As elections were held around China, university campuses became very active. At Fudan University in Shanghai, undergraduates in the Chinese language department, philosophy department, and also graduate students, became candidates. This was reported in “China Youth Daily.” The elections in Beijing were held in November, and Haidian District, which has a concentration of universities, came last. Back then Li Shengping (李胜平), who was studying in Xicheng District at one of Peking University’s branch campuses, stood for election and won. He was one of the activists involved in the Democracy Wall (民主墙) and an editor of the “Beijing Spring” (北京之春) magazine. He was also involved in the April 5th incident, 1976.
Because Haidian District had so many universities, the election activities there were especially active. Peking University was divided into two electoral constituencies: one for faculty, workers, and their families, and another for students and graduate students. The constituency for undergrads and graduate students elected two representatives, and 20-30 people ran as candidates. A range of activities were held to attract votes, including public debates, question-and-answer sessions, and so on. For about a month or more Peking University was soaked in the atmosphere of the election.
An important feature of the Peking University elections is that even though the post was for a largely irrelevant district representative, the political ideas proposed were of national significance: namely, how to foster the democratization of China. Actually, everyone was clear on what was really going on, which is that we were simply using the platform of an election to express our views to the government. I suspect that this is something the authorities didn’t anticipate. They thought that because the issues county- and district-level deputies can get involved in are so minor, there’s no political significance to the process at all.
Yaxue Cao: At that time I was a freshman still finding my ways on campus, and I remember during the elections there were people crowded near the The Triangle (三角地) every day, looking at the election-related big and small character posters. Even though I didn’t quite understand what was going on, I browsed some of them. I remember the back walls of the glass display board at The Triangle were covered too, and I remember reading an A4-sized poster titled “John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty.”
Hu Ping: Also, during the elections students organized their own media, reporting on all the electoral developments. Some candidates also organized their own election teams. Back then the president of Peking University was very open-minded about it and provided the school auditorium for the debates. I myself held two debates at that auditorium.
Li Shengping’s triumph in the Xicheng District election put some of the old conservatives in Beijing on guard. The municipal government dispatched an internal notice demanding that party members not get involved in elections. This shows that the conservatives at the time were terrified of the idea of even a grassroots vote. But the entire social atmosphere was pursuing change, student passions were high, and most of the campus leaders and administrators were fairly open-minded and liberal — because so many people had experienced horrifying political persecution in the past.
At the end of 1980 the Solidarity Movement in Poland was formed. The conservative Hu Qiaomu (胡乔木) wrote an internal letter saying that the same sort of thing might transpire in China, and the Party elite started to get very nervous. The whole political atmosphere quickly became much more stern. After the election there was a rumor saying that the top Party leadership were very unhappy with the elections and wanted to crack down — they only reason they didn’t was because of internal disagreement.
Later they revised the election law and limited a number of election activities. At the next election in 1983 (they were held every three years), the Communist Party was running the so-called “anti-spiritual pollution” political campaign (反精神污染运动), and the political atmosphere was heavy, so there weren’t very many election activities held then.
Yaxue Cao: I was still on campus in 1983, but I don’t have any memory of the elections that year — so it mustn’t have been anything like 1980. In 1980, Chen Ziming (陈子明) was elected as a representative for the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences. You wrote in an essay that he was the convenor of the group of representatives drawn from universities in Haidian District. What did all you do as representatives?
Hu Ping: We proposed some draft resolutions, voted against or abstained from voting on some government work reports, and so on. It was all trivial stuff. Nothing we did had any impact on the big picture.
By the time 1986 came around, the atmosphere had loosened up again, and election activities started up once more. For instance, at Peking University Li Xianbin (李淑贤), a lecturer in the physics department, was elected as a representative, and she was of course the wife of Fang Lizhi (方励之). Professor Fang had already gained national prominence and influence at universities around China for his involvement in pro-liberalization and democratization activities, and the Communist Party saw him as an enormous headache. Fang was engaged in his own enthusiastic electioneering at the China University of Science and Technology in Hefei, Anhui. Then the 1986 student movement started, beginning at CUST and then spreading to Shanghai and Beijing, with students taking to the streets. The police made some arrests, but when this stirred up even more students to go to Tiananmen Square to protest, they quickly let them go.
The lively political atmosphere throughout 1986 struck dread into the Communist Party leadership, and they made a major decision: they expelled Fang Lizhi, Liu Binyan (刘宾雁), and Wang Ruowang (王若望), and others, from the Party — and the reform-minded Party Secretary Hu Yaobang (胡耀邦) was also forced out. The political atmosphere once again became severe.
What all this means is that before the 1989 movement, the hardliners at the top of the Communist Party had already lashed out against a tide of liberalism and democracy, but because China was still just emerging from the calamity of the Cultural Revolution, social elites — including some members of the top echelon of the Party — all actually sought some degree of freedom and democracy, especially the youth and the intellectuals. The yearning was deep. In China at that time, everyone was increasingly dissatisfied with the half-hearted opening up that the authorities had engaged in. This was followed up with a half-hearted repression, which didn’t truly strike fear into people’s hearts, and thus aroused even more disaffection. It was against this backdrop that the democracy movement of 1989 exploded.
After the June 4 massacre, the Communist Party was completely panicked and they viewed every collective activity as a major threat, and their attacks on dissent became fiercer. The whole political atmosphere of the 1990s was desolate and grim.
By the end of the 1990s and the early 2000s, independent candidates began appearing again, such as Xu Zhiyong (许志永) and others. And again, it was at the universities — for instance Xu Zhiyong was a teacher at the Beijing University of Posts and Telecommunications when he was elected. But these elections were nothing like the 1980s, where all the talk was about national politics, and ideals; in the latter case, the election was limited to how they’ll discharge their duty as people’s representatives. For all that, independent candidature in and of itself represents a strong orientation toward democratic principles and values, so these elections are still enormously meaningful. Furthermore, grassroots elections are the only way that Chinese citizens can actually cast votes.
Yaxue Cao: Xu Zhiyong was elected a People’s representative in both 2003 and 2006, but by 2011 (at that point elections had been changed to once every five years), the authorities resorted to all sorts of measures to prevent him from being re-elected. A few years ago you wrote an article about grassroots elections, noting that after three decades, the bureaucratic level of the posts haven’t risen — it remains at county- and district-level People’s Congresses, and village elections. Another observation you made is that the quality of them has dropped, which has manifested in the general lack of interest in the elections by voters, given that they’ve often simply become a show manipulated by officials, who receive bribes and crush independent competitors. So, given that the authorities have absolutely no intention to roll out genuine elections, why don’t they just abolish them and appoint the representatives or village officials directly themselves? Isn’t that the outcome anyway? Why go to the trouble of staging them?
Hu Ping: After June 4, the Party began to regard liberalization and democratization as the number one enemy, and there was basically no one at the top echelon of the Party who had any sympathy or support for democracy. The suppression never let up, and China’s entire political ecology underwent a fundamental change. But the authorities don’t really have any need to promulgate a law abolishing the grassroots election system altogether, because it’s too insignificant. With continuous repression in the 20 some years following the June 4 massacre, cynicism is rampant in Chinese society, and the majority of Chinese people feel no attachment or sympathy with the past movement of liberalization and democracy, and they don’t get involved. So, the fact that there are so many people now stepping forward as candidates is just amazing. The risks they’re taking are so much greater than those we took back then, so it’s worthy of our wholehearted support and close attention. Every single person who runs as an independent candidate, without exception, becomes a target for the authorities to attack. The corollary to this is that it proves that independent candidature is itself a challenge, regardless of what your policies or politics are.
Yaxue Cao: I remember during the Wukan incident [in 2011] a group of public intellectuals traveled there to offer their support, and to get involved and be election observers. A few days ago I was chatting with He Depu (何德普) about this, and he said that this year public intellectuals didn’t have the slightest enthusiasm in the elections. Might this reflect the current political atmosphere in China?
Hu Ping: Since taking power, Xi Jinping has taken systematic steps to shut down the space for expression for Chinese liberal-leaning intellectuals, which had been constrained to begin with. Even the Gongshi (Consensus) website and the Yanhuang Chunqiu magazine have been shut down and are no longer tolerated — and you can well imagine the terrorizing effect this has. I believe that the international community, including the United States and other Western countries, is seeing more and more clearly that the Chinese regime has had no intention of carrying out political and democratic reforms. On the contrary, as the Chinese economy grows bigger and bigger, the regime has become more confident and armed with more resources. These are obvious developments, and even some of the China apologists in the West are seeing that things are not panning out as they expected.
Yaxue Cao: U.S. policy toward China has for decades been built on the assumption that, once China develops and the middle class grows strong, democracy will naturally come. Many have been dazzled by changes in China. China watchers are awed, some even succumbed to admiring the efficiency of authoritarian rule. But at the same time, elections in China have made no progress whatsoever, in terms of both level and quality. Stacking these two pictures of China together, you can’t support the assumption that the course of economic development will nurture the course of democratization.
Hu Ping: It was predicated on a mistaken theory to begin with — and yet just what lies at the heart of the Communist Party, and just how the regime has made it through all these years, I believe Western observers still don’t have a clear understanding of. Not only are they unclear, but probably a lot of Chinese aren’t clear, because the twists and transformations of the Party have no precedent that we can reference. Actually, the principle is quite simple: After the extreme centralism of the Mao era resulted in widespread political terror and total economic collapse, after Mao died Chinese society from top to bottom, inside and outside the Party, experienced a strong impetus toward political and economic reform, and the 1980s was a reflection of this. The Soviet Union and Eastern European countries also went through their own democratic transition via this route. But in China the June 4 massacre reversed the trend and history — and also changed the history of the world. You cannot have any hope that a regime built on such a massacre is going to engage in any liberalization and democracy. And so not only the Chinese people, but the entire world is faced with a stubborn and powerful dictatorship. I think people haven’t realizes the seriousness of this problem and haven’t devoted enough attention and understanding to it.
Yaxue Cao: In early October, professor Arthur Waldron at the University of Pennsylvania, gave a speech in New York that we published on the China Change website. He said that his greatest concern was that Western countries didn’t see autocracy as a feature of communism, but as a feature of China.
Hu Ping: What’s needed right now is to have a complete narrative of China’s political course over the past three decades, letting people know that China has undergone a very special process that has led to today’s China. As you examine this process, you will see that the Chinese are not any different from foreigners. So when assessing China don’t just extrapolate from economic determinism to a claim of Chinese exceptionalism. The damage this does is divert attention from how to counter the challenges and deal with the threat posed by a communist dictatorship, to instead being about how to accommodate and accept them. This is dangerous. You should be changing it, not accepting it. When the bar is continually lowered to: “We are fine with it as long as we avoid war,” isn’t that aiding them?
Yaxue Cao: Once the free world begins to make concessions on universal values, the world order will change.
Hu Ping: It’s already changing. If accommodation becomes the new engagement policy, the West will inflict disasters on itself. China is not North Korea. North Korea has no ability to corrupt other countries, but China will corrupt the whole world.
Yaxue Cao: In looking back on the 1980 elections in Peking University, you refuted the idea that “democratization depends on a market economy and a strong middle class.” You pointed out that, in 1980, the Cultural Revolution had just ended, and few people knew what democracy or freedom actually looked like. You wrote: “We discovered, spontaneously and indigenously, the idea of constitutional democracy and its operation.”
Hu Ping: The New York Times interviewed me recently, and I also talked about this. Chinese propaganda wants you to believe that the concept of freedom and democracy is a Western one, but where did the Westerners get it? It was a response to lasting religious wars, persecution, and terror. People were persecuted for different beliefs, for different interpretations and views, and this led to demand for tolerance, for freedom of belief, and freedom of expression. Following the Cultural Revolution, the Chinese wanted tolerance, and it was spontaneous.
When Eastern Europe democratized in the late 1980s and early 1990s, it had no middle class, no market economy. Mongolia had no market economy when it democratized. Xi Jinping’s father Xi Zhongxun (习仲勋), while in office, proposed that China needs a law to protect dissent. He had had no western education, where did he get that idea? Because he was persecuted for his speech, and he came to the realization that a line should be drawn between the rights of the people and the power of the government, and that certain freedoms must be granted and protected. The popular demand for freedom was the real cause of the 1989 Tiananmen protests. But the June 4 massacre changed not only the course of China, but also the course of the world.
Yaxue Cao: Yes. The world has yet to confront this reality. Thank you.
Hu Ping (胡平) lives in New York and edits Beijing Spring (《北京之春》), “a monthly Chinese-language magazine dedicated to the promotion of human rights, democracy and social justice in China.”
Yaxue Cao (曹雅学) edits the China Change website. Follow her on Twitter @YaxueCao