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“If I lose my freedom”—Xu Zhiyong in My Memory

February 4, 2014

Editor’s note: Xu Zhiyong, a key advocate of the New Citizens Movement, was sentenced to four years’ imprisonment on January 26 for “gathering a crowd to disrupt order in a public place.” Xu was originally detained in July 2013 after being subjected to four months of house arrest in connection with his public calls for asset transparency and equal access to education as part of the New Citizens Movement.

Xu is among the dozens of activists who have been prosecuted for their common pursuit of democracy and freedom since the Chinese government began its crackdown on the New Citizens Movement in March 2013. To remember these activists, the author has written portraits of a number of them, in a series titled "If I lose my freedom."

Xiao Guozhen worked as a volunteer at the Open Constitutional Initiative (OCI), or Gongmeng, a public interest organization and law research center co-founded by Xu Zhiyong, Yu Jiang, Zhang Xing Shui, and Teng Biao to provide legal consultation and assistance to the public. It was shut down by the authorities in August 2009. 

[Translation by Human Rights in China]

Part 1 of 2


The first time I met Xu Zhiyong was in a fast-food restaurant in the Chaoyangmen section of Beijing. Because of a traffic jam, I was a full hour late. I tried to call him to tell him that I'd be late, but his mobile phone was turned off. When I got to the meeting place, I recognized him immediately. He looked up and gave me a gentle and slightly bashful smile.

At a glance, he looked like a graduate student out of a university campus, as calm as water and very bookish. While waiting for me, he was quite absorbed reading on his computer. He told me that in order to keep himself focused, he didn't turn on his mobile phone while working.

We felt like friends at first sight, and immediately jumped into our main topic: What should we do next? He mentioned several areas: do research on constitutionalism, provide aid to petitioners, and provide legal assistance. I told him I was already reviewing existing laws, statutes, and regulations, looking for  violations of the Constitution, that is, instances when lower-level laws contradicted the Constitution, the supreme law, as well as contradictions and conflicts among various laws. He suggested that he, Teng Biao,[1] and I work together to do research on constitutionalism, as a way to improve existing laws and regulations.

As our conversation went into greater depth, and as he became more absorbed, he seemed to become less self-conscious and spoke with greater ease and confidence. It was obvious that the degree to which he held onto his dreams had reached the state that Buddhists refer to as “obsession” (痴).

After our long talk, he disappeared, in hurried steps, into the lamplight and the sea of people in the bustling capital, as ordinarily as a drop of water blending into the ocean. I gazed at his departing frame for a long time, telling myself: this is no ordinary person.

The second time we met, I brought along some of the results of my research, mostly half-finished, and gave him photocopies. He was pleasantly surprised, saying I'd provided him with a lot of material and had exceeded his expectations. He posted my essay on my investigation into violations of the Constitution on his law blog. I remember that my “Proposal to Change or Repeal the Management Methods for the Rental of Commodity Housing" remained on Zhiyong's law blog right up until 2012, when it was deleted by censors.

Later on, I didn't continue doing this work. Time was one reason, but the bigger reason was that the more research I did on this and the deeper I probed, the more I realized the following: the authorities were in fact deliberately formulating and passing laws, statutes, and regulations that violated the Constitution in order to limit civil rights and expand the power of the government on the legislative level. For example, following the 1989 massacre, the Law on Assemblies, Processions, and Demonstrations was implemented to prevent assemblies, marches, and demonstrations. The authorities totally lacked the desire and impetus to make improvements. Instead, they give such free rein to the evil in the evil laws that they don’t even obey the evil laws while implementing them.

After realizing this, I simply gave up. I firmly believed that only by amending the Constitution could we fundamentally solve the problems in China. Furthermore, it was the "Four Cardinal Principles"[2]—especially the principle of upholding the one-party dictatorship—that were the source of all evil in China. When I came to this realization, I said: "May the ruling party rest in peace, long live the people,"  and I devoted my limited time and energy to the citizens’ movement.


In October 2011, Zhiyong ran for the third time as a candidate for deputy to the Beijing University of Posts and Telecommunications (BUPT) People's Congress. The Fifty Centers[3] slandered him in an organized and premeditated way, and his law blog became one of the battlegrounds in a decisive struggle. For about two weeks, I defended Zhiyong day and night, battling with a group of Fifty Centers. I appealed to the BUPT voters, telling them that democracy begins with voters making decisions for themselves and for the ballots in their hands.

On the evening of November 6, 2011, Zhiyong asked me to meet him at a small restaurant outside the south gate of BUPT. When I arrived, there were already about ten people there, mainly young students from the university. The students, risking a crackdown by the university, were using their burning passion to campaign for Zhiyong. They carried dozens of posters and hundreds of leaflets on the backs of their bicycles. At the gate of BUPT, we split up into groups of two and simply divided up the work, with each group responsible for distributing and posting materials in several buildings. Zhiyong said he wanted me to team up with him. Moving in the deep darkness of night under dim streetlights, Zhiyong and I shuffled from building to building in the BUPT electoral district. We pasted posters in busy pedestrian areas, our actions becoming more and more practiced. One by one, we placed the leaflets on tables or stuffed them in the cracks under doors.

On occasion, when we ran into people, Zhiyong would have me directly hand the leaflets to them. As I handed out the material, I also unabashedly "promoted" him. I thought to myself: Zhiyong is actually an introvert; but for his sense of justice, what a great deal of courage he must have had to muster to overcome his natural shyness.

As we walked through the wintery campus, what I felt even more deeply was this: the propaganda for the government-selected candidates was everywhere, their invective and slander surging like tides, but Zhiyong—an independent candidate who was passionate about doing good for the public, who financed his own campaign and endured attacks and slander—could only secretly put up his posters and distribute handbills in the dead of night, which could be ripped up at any moment. How comical, and how sad!

I told Zhiyong: "Let's take a photo." He replied: "OK." In a darkened passageway, I gave him the leaflets I was holding, and he folded them and put them in his right and left pockets. Here is the photo I took of him.


The evening of November 6, 2011, Xu Zhiyong in front of one of his BUPT People’s Congress election posters. Photo by: Xiao Guozhen.

How dignified and serious his expression was.

At the time, he was being harshly suppressed by the authorities. Later, in an essay after the election, he described the process:

This was an unfair competition. To promote its candidates, the Party Committee used nearly all of the available university administrative resources. Some instructors told me frankly that they could not vote for me, and the volunteers helping my campaign are coming under enormous pressure. In the college of humanities alone, at least three students and one teacher were called in by the Party Secretary or instructors for ‘chats,’ and were threatened about their futures and told they were not permitted to campaign for me. At least three organizations in different colleges were forced to revoke my nomination, or somehow lost the nomination in the process of reporting it [to authorities]. The university used text messages to inform voters:

‘We suggest a list of four candidates ... and any differing opinions should be made known to the head of the Voters Group.’ The approved candidates had large photos posted all over the campus, and, in every dormitory, TVs ran their campaign videos one after another. Meanwhile, as an independent candidate, I was not allowed to pass out leaflets or put up posters; even the posters I was carrying in my hands were confiscated. And there were also deliberate rumors and slander, saying I was unwilling to teach classes, that I had illicit relations with foreign countries, and had tried to use unscrupulous means to get elected, etc. It’s such a shame that, just as the competition was beginning, rumors and slander were already flying all over the place.[4]

Yet all of this has become commonplace in the political life of people, with commonsense turned upside down and conscience turned into heresy. On the other hand, it is precisely because of this that things must be changed.

Zhiyong said in the same essay:  "When I stood on campus holding the poster in my hand, I was not campaigning for myself. I was holding up the banner of democracy that previous generations once held up. There are no new ideas in what I say—it is the common sense of human civilization.”[5]


Zhiyong is strong in thought and action. For a long time, he devoted himself to helping vulnerable groups. I once saw some AIDS victims from Henan come to our Open Constitutional Initiative (OCI) office. Zhiyong discussed with them how to legally state the claims of victims.  Once, he and I together met with parents who were seeking equal rights in education.

Zhiyong and some like-minded individuals once wrote a letter to more than 400 deputies of the National People's Congress and mobilized more than 100 deputies from the Beijing Municipal People’s Congress, 13 of whom jointly drafted a bill to change the university entrance exam regulations regarding migrant children. Several dozen domestic mainstream media outlets reported on this, and more than 100,000 signers supported the action. By the end of December 2012, aside from Beijing, localities around the country, one after the other, also formulated such proposals and bills addressing this issue.

In the afternoon of February 25, 2013, Zhiyong took to the streets to hand out cards at subway entrances proposing that the 8 million new citizens in Beijing who did not have a household registration certificate take a day off, on February 28, to go to the Beijing Municipal Commission of Education to fight for permission for migrant students to take the middle school and university entrance exams in the cities where they study. He called out loudly: "On what basis are some people able to enjoy special privileges while another group must be discriminated against? Why is it that foreign citizens can sit for the university exams in Beijing, but our own citizens cannot?"[6] Appealing for equality in education later became one of his offenses.

In May 2012, Zhiyong began contemplating the direction of the New Citizens Movement, and he issued an article entitled "China Needs a New Citizens Movement," to promote the concept and identity of citizens, who can join forces to advance social progress:

We advocate a New Citizens Movement and practice the New Citizens Spirit. We launch a movement to oppose residential segregation, promote educational equality, fight to reunite the tens of millions of left-behind children with their parents, and jointly sign our names to urge officials to disclose their public assets—in order to, in however small a way, impound the power-hungry tiger in his cage. We provide aid to the weak who have suffered grave injustices in order to have a fair, just, and democratic rule of law, we promote Citizens’ Days for same-city citizens’ gatherings, in order to coalesce the healthy strength of a civil society, and use citizen actions to promote national progress to create a modern and civilized China based on freedom, righteousness, and love.

The goal of the New Citizens Movement is to bring about a free China with democracy and rule of law, a just and happy civil society, and a new national spirit of freedom, righteousness, and love. The “new” in New Citizens Movement refers to new historical conditions, a new citizens’ spirit, a new pattern of behavior, and a new constitutional order. “New” refers to citizens possessing the new spiritual belief in freedom, righteousness, and love. But, even more, it defines a citizens’ movement in a new era, of a new model, and with new goals. New historical conditions include technological progress, a market economy, diverse ways of thinking, a universal tide of democracy. The new behavior pattern refers to citizen rights defense, citizen non-violence, non-cooperation, and peaceful democracy movement with a new spirit and language system. The new constitutional order refers to a political system characterized by democracy, rule of law, and republicanism, and to a civil society with freedom, righteousness, and happiness. The social background, spiritual belief, behavior model, and objectives of this citizens’ movement are new—that is why it is called a New Citizens Movement.

Earlier, in the second half of 2011, Zhiyong got the idea to promote “same-city citizens’ meal gatherings,” with the last Saturday evening of every month as the gathering time. We proposed the following:

  1. Seating is equal, regardless of status or seniority.
  2. Proposals and comments are made in accordance with democratic principles, with equal time for everyone to speak.
  3. In the first round of statements, each person introduces him or herself, providing name, profession, ideals, activities, etc., so that everyone gets to know one another; in the second round of statements, each person speaks on the topic of one’s interest, followed by a free discussion.
  4. Everyone splits the check; be as frugal as possible.
  5. Register with one's name, profession, city of residence, telephone number, email address, microblog, and other information to be shared among “same-city” citizens elsewhere in China.
  6. Encourage every citizen to bring some new people to the next meal gathering.

At the beginning of 2013, there were already same-city citizens’ meal gatherings in some 30 cities in China. The citizens with similar interests connected with one another. This made the authorities panic, leading to a nationwide crackdown.


The author with Xu Zhiyong at a legal seminar. Courtesy of Xiao Guozhen.


A strange thing is that someone as pure as Xu Zhiyong is so often criticized. Recently, in an interview with Radio Free Asia, I learned that some people had said he had become "politicized" and others said he was a fool. In my view, Zhiyong did not become politicized. He directly mentioned the word "politics" many times, referring to the good politics in his heart. He wrote in an essay:

Politics fundamentally is public service. In present Chinese society, there are numerous opportunities to serve, and we must conscientiously find them, and give of ourselves sincerely. The statesmen of the future democratic society begin as unpaid legislators today. Politics is a part of our everyday life. Politics is not empty talk. Politics is not opposition for the sake of opposing. Politics is a great cause that works for benefits for the public. Politics is in our daily life.[7]

He also said in an open letter to Xi Jinping: "The people of our generation must lay the cornerstone for a politically responsible ethics. The mission of a real man is not to linger in a rotten interest group, but rather to work for a free and happy future for the 1.3 billion Chinese people."[8] Could it be that the orientation of Zhiyong's political values was not sufficiently clear?

In the interview, I said that the New Citizens Movement is a kind of beneficial exploration, it is civil society embarking on a path toward maturing. While it cannot be the acme of perfection, at the very least it is trying. If we say that Xu Zhiyong is a fool, then China needs this kind of fool. It is not that we have too many fools—but too few. If even the moderate and reasonable ways used by Xu Zhiyong to achieve citizens' rights are suppressed, we can infer that the authorities are telling the citizens of China this:  Asking the tiger for its skin will get you nowhere; the regime recognizes only violence and the barrel of a gun, not the ballot or citizens’ rights. In that case, those who deride Xu Zhiyong as a fool can very well try other ways. The growth of civil society will need the efforts of all sides. People have a natural right to overthrow tyranny, including using armed force when necessary.

After Xu Zhiyong published "Gongmeng’s Report on the Investigation into the Truth about the Death of Qian Yunhui”[9] [December 2010], the 50 Centers took the opportunity to denounce him, those who did not know the truth denounced him, and those who claimed they were close to Xu also denounced him. The day the report came out, I asked Xu Zhiyong if he really believed in the conclusion of the report. Zhiyong said that he believed that this investigative report was "an important component of our fair and just standpoint, which is to tell the truth with courage and without fear of pressure." Although I didn't agree with the conclusion of the report, I respected his right to issue the report.

At the time, I told the people who criticized the report that it seemed that in China there was a tradition of many people talking, and few taking action; that a person who takes action is inevitably surrounded by several times more people who make irresponsible remarks about him; and that, furthermore, generally speaking, the status of the speaker is generally higher than that of the doer, and that it is bad to have more critics than doers. I suggested that everyone should instead work together and rationally and constructively explore ways to solve problems, so as to help by providing ideas to those investigative teams that have not yet reached their conclusions.

I don't understand: why do people want to excoriate someone who sacrifices everything and ends up in prison? Why do people want to vilify someone who is beaten savagely by the police and thugs, but who does not strike back? Why do people want to ridicule someone who loses his own freedom in the fight for the freedom of others?

Every time I think of Zhiyong, I always think of what Jean Jacques Rousseau wrote in his Confessions: "So let the numberless legion of my fellow men gather around me, and hear my confessions.... Then let each of them in turn reveal, with the same frankness, the secrets of his heart at the foot of your throne and say, if he dare, 'I was better than that man.'" I find it very difficult to believe that there are people who, after examining their own conscience, would dare say, "I am better than Xu Zhiyong!" Fortunately, as Zhiyong once said, "In a modern and civilized society that is more and more transparent, a person's image is accumulated through time and actions."[10] After sifting through sand, people have increasingly come to realize the innate sincerity, purity, and nobleness of Zhiyong.

Part 2 of 2


The last time I saw Xu Zhiyong was on March 30, 2013.

Xu Zhiyong giving the keynote speech at a citizens’ meal gathering on March 30, 2013. Photo by: Xiao Guozhen.

That day was a citizens’ meal gathering. I was the host, and we focused our discussion on analyzing the causes of smog in Eastern China, how to prevent it, and how to protect the environment.

We discussed how officials were becoming more “humorous”: just two days earlier, on March 28, the Beijing Municipal Environmental Protection Bureau’s spokesperson Fang Li said “our air quality is improving overall.”

We discussed that we encountered not just environmental pollution but also media pollution and educational brainwashing pollution, and that the source of this pollution is the one-party system.

We even discussed the precept of “moral people should help others in need”—that we should talk about how to help those in need rather than just talking about morals. For example, everyone could consider collecting pollution cases to sue relevant parties for compensation, and then, to widen the influence of these cases, publicize the source of the pollution and the government’s role in it. As far as I know, this was Xu Zhiyong’s last public appearance before his arrest. Ding Jiaxi had already been put under restriction that night and could not participate. Zhiyong told me, in order to attend this dinner, he had “run away” from home the day before—he did not sleep at home that night—so as to escape police control.

Zhiyong spoke for five minutes about his New Citizens concept. Zhiyong said our gathering is similar to a citizens’ town hall meeting and we are a constructive opposition. Our rallying point is “citizen” and we should take the role of a citizen seriously. Citizen is a symbol and a concept, he said, and it signifies standing apart from the subjects of an authoritarian government and taking on responsibility. He emphasized that we are independent, free citizen individuals—not part of an organization and without personal attachment to one. He said that citizens’ meal gatherings are a good platform for us to get together to share our ideals, abide by the principles of democracy, and collectively promote political and cultural change.

Zhiyong also said no one has the right to prevent us from being citizens or to tell us we are not qualified to be citizens.

As I always do as a citizen journalist, I quickly recorded the lively discussion among citizens that I described above.

About 40 people attended the gathering that evening over home-style dishes. After dinner, the check was split equally. I went to settle the bill, but we were short so Zhiyong and lawyer Zhang Weiyun took money out of their own pockets to make up the difference.

Zhiyong and I were the last to leave. Even in this rare moment of freedom, he did not take the shortest route to get home but instead stayed on the subway until the stop closest to my house—Shaoyao Ju—in order to talk with me more. We talked very happily while we walked, completely unaware that the authorities were already closing in. The next day, they seized New Citizens Movement activists and participants Yuan Dong, Zhang Baocheng, Ma Xinli, and other good friends.

Even more unimaginable was that this was Zhiyong’s last public appearance. Prison opened up its ferocious, bloody mouth for him. Thirteen days later, on April 12, he was placed under house arrest; next he was criminally detained, arrested, sentenced, and imprisoned.


Zhiyong was emotionally prepared early on for personal risks. He once said: “Today we must pay a price to promote social progress. In our hearts we are magnanimous; we seek freedom, justice, and love; and we behave moderately and rationally. Yet within a society of feudal subjects, the act of standing up bravely as citizens is dangerous. But social progress requires some people to walk in front. To take even a half step forward in this path means no turning back.” He also said: “The post-totalitarian era does not have an absolute safety baseline. To be a citizen, one may have to, at any moment, pay the price for social progress.”

In 2013, the situation got worse day by day. In March and April, many friends were seized.

At the end of May, a rights defender lawyer friend and I were asked to speak with the authorities, separately. This friend was notified: “During the June Fourth period, believe ‘the universal truth’ or else leave this universe.”

On June 1, I wrote an email to Zhiyong and several others friends: “I suggest everyone, not just Zhiyong, provide the address of your home just in case you and your family members’ cell phones are seized; this would avoid the situation where your friends and lawyers have no way of contacting your family members.”

On June 19, I wrote the first draft of “If I Lose My Freedom – Ding Jiaxi in My Memory”  and gave it to Zhiyong and other friends; on June 21, I received Zhiyong’s email: “Today a Domestic Security officer asked about the essay that you wrote. But I said I didn’t want to talk about it. Please be careful. They might come looking for you. It’s best if you publish it today.” Just in case, I rushed to finish the essay.

At 10:30 a.m. on June 26, I received an email from Zhiyong that said: “Yesterday afternoon, the city’s self-proclaimed ‘responsible person’ and an assistant spoke with me, in a Changping [district] holiday town. They made me pick a time to talk again, so I chose to continue the talk at the same time this afternoon. I may be in danger. But I will resign myself to fate.”

 “I still harbor optimistic hopes, and will try hard to tell them that the citizens group is made up of rational, moderate idealists. For China’s freedom, righteousness, and love, the Communist Party of China should tolerate the existence of healthy forces and political diversity. At the same time, I have already prepared for the worst. For example, tomorrow afternoon, if I am detained as soon as I go out, I will face [the potential of] ten years of life in prison calmly.”

A bit later that same day, Zhiyong told me: “We talked again for another four hours. The contents of today’s discussion were similar to those of yesterday. Up front I said even if they use coercive measures, I will pay any price for the sake of progress for humanity.… They made two requests: love the Party, and stop illegal, criminal activities. I said it’s not possible for me to love the party. . . .”

At that time, Zhiyong thought the likelihood of a comprehensive crackdown by the authorities was small. I was not so optimistic. That day, I sent Zhiyong and other friends an email that said: “Again, I’m reminding all my colleagues to take precaution. Taking preventive measures does not mean that the danger is greater than before, but just in case. Remember in May, I reminded some friends, via this email account, about the importance of preparation, including giving one’s address to close friends, so that your lawyer would have a way to contact your family members in the event that both your and your family’s cellphones are confiscated. (Liu Benqi and Zhao Changqing have had this problem already; in Benqi’s case, the price was high, as lawyer Peng knows.)”

On June 28, Zhiyong informed me: “2 o’clock this afternoon was the third talk. Danger still exists.”

That day at 8:08 p.m., Zhiyong said after he came back: “They are very dissatisfied with the ‘recognition’ I submitted. They said I should: endorse the Party’s policy objective; plead guilty and stop committing crimes; not renege on these promises; then publicize this in the media. I said I am sorry. You should never count on Xu Zhiyong to sell out his conscience and beliefs—don’t even think this way. I am willing to pay any price for the sake of my beliefs. Serving ten years in prison would be my honor. They said they didn’t want that to happen either because I advocate love, which is different from other people. We debated all afternoon. They said they still want to talk more. I said there is no need—that next time we talk, there are only two possible scenarios: you come to me on your own to talk about life, religion, etc., or you use legal procedure to find me. In the end we parted congenially and they gave me some 18th Party Congress study materials.”

On June 30, Zhiyong said, the person watching him “was doing an illegal search of a courier inside his building.” This finally made him angry and they had a row. He can tolerate infringement of his own rights but not damage done to other people’s rights, even if it was a courier.”

On July 13, Li Gang was arrested. After I posted detailed information online, I sent another email to Zhiyong and friends to say: “We don’t know who is next. I remind everyone once again to take preventive measures, including, for those concerned, providing home addresses if need be. . . . Please note: I am not emphasizing risk, but risk prevention. We must draw this lesson: last time Zhang Xiangzhong was taken away, his friends asked each other and spent several days looking for his family.”


At that time, I was considering becoming a visiting scholar and asked Zhiyong to write me a recommendation letter. On July 15, he finalized the letter. The next day, he was taken away, and didn’t even have time to sign the letter.

On July 16, I notified our friends, saying that today, Zhiyong “was taken away by the Beijing police and his computer and other items in his home were seized. This has been confirmed. Since July 3, Zhang Xiangzhong, Li Gang, Li Huanjun, and Song Ze have all been taken away, in that order (the last three were arrested at the same time). Now it’s Zhiyong. Song Ze is ‘missing’ so we can infer he has been picked up. The authorities are using these rapid-fire punches to create terror. I remind you again to take precaution. I hope that Zhiyong had already made arrangements.”

After Zhiyong went into [detention], as I was hesitating as to whether to publish his essay, “For Love: A Dialogue about the New Citizens Movement,” I realized it had already been published. In a discussion group, a friend asked if the “Dialogue”— between Zhiyong and a Domestic Security officer—was really written by Zhiyong. I replied that it was indeed written by him because Zhiyong had sent it to me; now that it was made public, I wanted to verify his authorship to prevent false rumors.

 “Our ultimate goal is not to fight for the country to rule it, not for wealth and power, but for the dream of freedom, righteousness, and love.  This society of the privileged where might is right and corruption is rife must change. This ruthless society of lost honesty and moral degeneracy must change; autocracy must end. We must establish genuine democracy and rule of law, and a modern and civilized China that is free, righteous, and loving.”[11] This is Zhiyong’s dream.

Xi Jinping also has a Chinese Dream, which is to continue one-party rule in China. In the end, the authorities under Xi Jinping, whose dream is about one-party rule, has put in prison Xu Zhiyong, whose Chinese dream is about freedom, righteousness, and love. In other words, Xi Jinping is tearing our Chinese dream.

Although this is the case, I sincerely believe in what Zhiyong said: “No one has the power to strip me of my citizenship. No one has the power to deprive me of my dream as a Chinese citizen.”[12]

What I worry about is—just as Zhiyong said: “Today we can advance society non-violently. If there is no space for our moderate and rational voice, violence will erupt. That would be our country’s misfortune.”[13]

China is not suitable for a pure and awkward Zhiyong. At the same time, what a suffering China needs most are pure and awkward people like Zhiyong. This is Zhiyong’s karma and destiny. In other words, the life and struggle of a person like Zhiyong on China’s soil are Zhiyong’s misfortune, but they are China’s good fortune.

He believes politics is good, but apparently didn’t realize that in a certain reality, gentlemen are always persecuted by villains. I pray for Zhiyong: “We are hard pressed on every side, but not crushed; perplexed, but not in despair; persecuted, but not abandoned; struck down, but not destroyed.”[14]


During the writing of this essay, the news did not stop: Zhiyong’s daughter was born; Zhiyong stood trial; Zhiyong was sentenced to four years in prison on January 26, 2014.

I was not surprised by Zhiyong’s sentence. More than a month before, on December 19, 2013, I published the essay, “The Accusation of the Innocent by the Sinners,” in which I stated: “Unless an event like the fall of the Berlin Wall occurs before the sentencing, Xu Zhiyong will certainly be convicted, even though he is, from the start, completely, definitely not guilty.  My estimate of his prison term is three to five years.”

However, not surprised does not mean not angry. Out of grief comes a poet, as the saying goes. Not a “modern” poet, I recite:

The farthest distance in the world,
Is not between life and death,
Is not between heaven and the bottom of the ocean.
Rather, it is missing someone, every day,
But separated
by the prison’s electric fence,
by the barriers of the authoritarian regime.

 The authorities’ recommendation for indictment, indictment, and verdict regarding Zhiyong’s case are a vivid collection of his righteous deeds as a citizen. Through the night, I read Zhiyong’s legal case documents and realized some departments, in order to frame Zhiyong, employed many tricks. Here are two examples:

1. Divide the same case into separate trials, with the goal of turning the testimony in the same case into “witness testimony.” The authorities turned non-statutory evidence into legal evidence and used that as the basis for his charge and prosecution.

2. Arrest and charge first, then find the evidence. One piece of evidence that determined Zhiyong’s “guilt” is the Response of the Municipal Planning Committee No. 56 [2014]: outside the north gate of the Ministry of Education is Guihua Bicai Hutong (a Municipal government road), a public area.[15] This shows that they first arrested people without sufficient evidence last year (2013), and then provided evidence this year (the document is dated 2014). I commented on Twitter: “you haven’t perfected your fakery work; shouldn’t you have written No. 56 [2013]?”

After Zhiyong was sentenced, I often think about his shy smile the first time we met. When I think of his loss of freedom, I am both heartbroken and angry. When Zhiyong was sentenced, I posted on Twitter:[16]

“In my opinion, for Xu Zhiyong to not again fall prey to shameless persecution, all tyranny must be overthrown; all dictatorships must fall.”

“‘In every stage of these oppressions, we have petitioned for redress in the most humble terms: our repeated petitions have been answered only by repeated injury. A Prince whose character is thus marked by every act which may define a Tyrant, is unfit to be the ruler of a free people.’”[17]

“I know, Xu Zhiyong does not endorse overthrowing and knocking down types of concepts. When Zhiyong was put under house arrest, arrested, and sentenced, each time without exception, I read in my head the American Declaration of Independence: ‘That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it.’[18]


Translator's Notes:

[1] Teng Biao is a legal scholar and a co-founder of Gongmeng.

[2] The “Four Cardinal Principles,” enumerated by Deng Xiaoping in 1979, are the principles of upholding the 1) socialist path, 2) people's democratic dictatorship, 3) leadership of the Communist Party of China (CPC), and 4) Mao Zedong thought and Marxism-Leninism.

[3] The Fifty Centers are persons who are allegedly paid by government authorities to spread official propaganda on the Internet.

[4] Excerpted from Xu Zhiyong, “Thank you all—post-election thoughts” (《感谢你们——竞选之后的感想》), November 16, 2011

[5] Ibid.

[6] Excerpted from a leaflet which cannot be located online. Available online is a March version of this leaflet: “Take a day off on March 28,” (328请假一天) by Volunteers for Joint Citizen Action for Education Equality (教育平等公民联合行动志愿者), March 21, 2013

[7] Excerpted from Xu Zhiyong, “Encouragement to ourselves as citizens: serve, take upon yourself, put aside” (《公民自勉——服务、担当、放下》), April 23, 2013

[8] Excerpted from Xu Zhiyong, “Moral politics—second open letter to Xi Jinping” (《道德的政治——致习近平先生的第二封公开信》), March 4, 2013)

[9] Qian Yunhui, a village chief and petitioner in Zhejiang Province, was crushed to death by a truck on December 25, 2010. While many people suspected foul play, while the authorities declared the incident an accident. Gongmeng undertook and investigation and made public its report on December 31, 2010, concluding that it was indeed an accident.

[10] “Encouragement to ourselves,” supra n. 7 

[11] This is an excerpt from the essay “Be an Upstanding Citizen” (堂堂正正做公民) by Xu Zhiyong.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Ibid.

[14] 2 Cor. 4:8-9 (New International Version).

[15] Thus implying that Xu Zhiyong disrupted public order by occupying this public space.

[16] The three twitter posts are from January 26, 2014.

[17] The Declaration of Independence, Thirteen United States of America, July, 4, 1776.

[18] Ibid.


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Xiao Guozhen (肖国珍), born in 1972, is a Beijing-based lawyer from Hunan. She is a graduate of the University of International Business and Economics School of Law in Beijing. Because of her rights defense-related work, she has been subjected to police surveillance, threats, and unlawful restriction of personal freedom. She was named one of the 25 Notable Rights Defenders in Mainland China in 2012 by, a Chinese-language news website based overseas. She is a member of the China Democratic League and the PEN International Independent Chinese Centre.

Xu Zhiyong Speaks from Detention Center, August 1, 2013

Error | Human Rights in China 中国人权 | HRIC


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