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Perplexities and Exploration in an Autocratic Age

December 30, 2013

I was born in the Yijishan Hospital (originally an American missionary hospital) in Wuhu City, Anhui Province, on September 4, 1960. My father was a high school graduate who worked as a high-level mechanic at the Wuhu Shipyard. He also once worked as a pistol-packing security officer, charged with protecting Soviet experts who were stationed at the factory and high-ranking leaders who came on inspection tours. In 1958, during the period when cadres were sent down to the countryside, my father requested permission to leave the security detachment and return to the workshop as a worker. Actually, in his heart he really wanted to be a high-level mechanic, because they received high salaries, and their grain rations were higher than those of cadres.

In 1962, my father was temporarily transferred to the 408 Factory, in Banqiao, Xingping County, Shaanxi Province in China’s northwest. This was a key national project built in the early 1950s with the help of Soviet experts. There, workers, staff, and their dependents altogether numbered more than 16,000 people, and both the political background checks and professional requirements were rigorous. That same year, my younger sister was born, and my father named her Xingping, after the county, but later changed the character for “ping” from “peaceful” (平) to “duckweed” (萍).

In the summer of 1964, my entire family was formally transferred and we moved there. My father was not very willing to leave Wuhu—the breadbasket of region—to take up a job at a factory that, back then, was surrounded by a relatively backward wasteland. During his temporary move, my father found it difficult to acclimate himself to his new environment and he had a very difficult time adapting to the life there. When he was still at Wuhu, the Minister of the Sixth Ministry of Machinery Industry [responsible for naval construction], Vice Admiral Fang Qiang, who was also deputy commander of the Navy, headed a delegation of officials from the Sixth Ministry on an inspection tour of the Wuhu Shipyard, and he spoke to some of the high-level mechanics, mobilizing them to make sacrifices for the building of the nation, and to support the building of the Third Front of defense in northwest China.

My younger sister and I only went to Shaanxi for a short period before we were sent back to our hometown in Anhui, where we were put in the care of our maternal grandparents. At the time, my father was working almost day and night, frequently working overtime in the evenings or taking part in political studies. He was physically and mentally exhausted, and he had no time at all to look after children. For a period, I lived in the house of my maternal aunt. Later, my maternal grandfather took me to my other aunt's house in Shanghai to live for a while. And so, at the age five, I was already accustomed to a life on the move. My younger brother was born in 1965. This time, my maternal grandmother brought my sister and me back to my parents and stayed on to take care of the children.

At the end of 1966, my maternal grandmother was forced to take my younger sister and eldest younger brother, who was still learning how to walk, away with her, because there were rumors that the government was about to organize a campaign to criticize and struggle against the family members of the “black five categories” (landlords, rich peasants, counter-revolutionaries, bad elements, and rightists), and my maternal grandfather had inexplicably been relabeled from “small  property owner” to "landlord.” It was not until the end of 1977, my eldest younger brother he graduated from primary school and was transferred to the No. 477 Factory in Anqing, Anhui, that the whole family was reunited. During this period of separation, my mother and I saw my eldest younger brother only once, just before he turned three, when we went to visit my maternal grandparents. And my father took advantage of two business trips to visit my maternal grandparents and my brother.

The housing that was allocated to my parents was in a slightly upscale residential building that had three floors and four entrances. The building was originally designed and built for factory leaders, but it later had some vacant spaces, which benefited some engineering and technical staff and high-level mechanics. The units were different in size. The families of factory leaders had special residential units, each with three rooms, a kitchen, and a bathroom. But the families of lower-ranking employees were each given one room, and had to share a kitchen and a bathroom among three families.

Above us lived a graduate of Nanjing Central University and the chief of the factory education section, who also served as the principal of the school for the factory employees’ children. The principal's several children were each able to draw. The eldest was a girl, who later became the art teacher at the school, and who was the main person who taught me how to draw. His two sons both liked to draw comics and compose humorous poems.

Living opposite him was the deputy director of the factory (who had also served as the vice secretary of the Communist Party Committee). At the next entrance was the deputy director of the Communist Party Propaganda Department, who taught his child how to make model airplanes, and who had a large collection of pictorial magazines from the Soviet Union. When I was little, I often played with these leaders and intellectuals’ children, who were older than I. I often went over to their houses to leaf through books.

After the start of the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976), the families of these cadres came under all sorts of attacks. Some of them were publicly denounced and beaten. Even their sons and daughters were besieged and discriminated against. Other children, obeying instruction from their parents, kept their distance from them. But I would still go to their homes as always, and so was denounced as a "traitor" by some of my young buddies. For a few days, the principal and a female vice-principal stood at the front gate of the school and lowered their heads and admitted their guilt while the children passing by on their way to school spat in their faces. Some people struck them with stones or kicked them. I did my best to stop my young friends from doing this. The Cultural Revolution was the most critical period of my formative years, when I grew from a child to a young adult. I plan to write a book, to be published overseas, detailing my experience during the decade of the Cultural Revolution and relevant reflections.

The September 13 Lin Biao Incident[1] in 1971 made a deep impression on me. I had just turned 11 when I heard the news. And with a heavy heart, I pulled my best buddy to the corn fields, and feeling confused, I asked: "Liu Shaoqi and Lin Biao have made mistakes, and it was Chairman Mao who discovered these mistakes and who punished them. But if Chairman Mao commits a mistake, who will uncover it and who will punish him?" My little companion was frightened out of his wits, and could only mumble repeatedly: "You're a reactionary, you're a reactionary. If you dare to say this again, I'll report you to the teacher."

However, these kinds of questions did not disappear. During fifth grade, I pulled another buddy aside and said: "Although the communist society the teacher described is beautiful, I don’t understand how one can achieve it no matter how hard I think about it. There would be no social classes, and no differences between classes; there would be no military, no police, no courts, no currency, and certainly no government. The political consciousness of people would be very high; material goods would be so plentiful and food would never be lacking. Good things would be given to the elderly and the neediest patients. In that case, normal adults would find it difficult to get things, while the elderly and the sick would be given too much. Isn't such a distribution unfair? If there were too many people with mental illnesses, wouldn't there be chaos? They even say that at that point there would be no families and no marriages. And if I liked a certain female classmate, but many other people also liked her, and she might also like those male classmates—wouldn't that also be chaotic?” The classmate had no way to counter my argument, and was only able to say with anger: Your thinking is too reactionary! You must thoroughly reform your thinking.

From the time of primary school up until I was about to graduate from high school, I consistently excelled in my studies. I was the assistant class monitor of my class in first grade. I was the leader of the Ninth Platoon, Third Company of the Little Red Guards in third grade, and director of the general headquarters of the Little Red Guards in fifth grade (appointed by the Communist Youth League Committee secretary, with two teachers allocated to respectively become members of the Organization Committee and the Propaganda Committee). When I was ten, I became an "Active Element Studying the Thought of Mao Zedong" and joined with many adults to participate in the factory’s “Progressives Commendation Meetings,” where I often represented the student body to speak to thousands of people.

Our class teacher once told me privately he wanted to focus on cultivating my organizational skills, and so he consciously trained and nurtured my organizational competence and my ability to express myself. Furthermore, he requested that I be able to withstand all sorts of severe criticism and even invectives in the hope that someday I would become material befitting a pillar of the state. In this way, I gradually went from being an introverted, expressionless and lonely child who loved to think by himself, to a star student who loved to express himself, make friends, and who often showed a smiling face.

In those days, while walking on the street, people I didn't know would often strike up a conversation with me and flatter me. At times, groups of girls would shout out my name loudly, and when I would turn to look at them, they would run away giggling. Perhaps it was because I had a taste of vanity and self-importance from a young age; by the time I entered university, I, on the contrary, no longer sought celebrity or attention, as if I'd already evolved to a state beyond being vulnerable to honor and disgrace.

When I was in the fifth grade, Huang Shuai's "going against the tide" incident[2] was boiling up. The trouble makers in my school cursed our teachers in the name of the movement, destroying order in the classroom so much that after the teachers ran out of the class in anger, the students cheered that there was no need to attend classes and that everyone could go home to play. I really couldn't bear this kind of atmosphere and so I wrote a letter to Li Ruishan, who at the time was the secretary of the provincial party committee of Shaanxi. I pointed out that the publicity of this incident given by People's Daily and several other central government publications and broadcast media had in fact severely damaged the educational order in the schools, that the "studying is useless theory" was being universally supported by students, and that if this trend continued, it would affect the future development of the country. Therefore, I suggested that Huang Shuai's “going against the tide” of teachers and education should be publicly criticized.

After writing this letter, I gave it to my buddy to read, and he gave it to his older brother to read at home. His brother, who was three or four years older than we were, was shocked after he read my letter, and so he went to look for the son of a certain cadre (who was known by everyone as "big genius," had read many books, and was very good at writing). The feedback he returned with was: this letter must be immediately destroyed; otherwise, my mother and father would meet with disaster. Although I was half-doubting this, as it could involve my parents, I gave up the idea of sending the letter, and so destroyed it.

I began to keep a notebook in third grade, recording the titles of the books I'd read, the names and nationalities of the authors, and the general contents. In fifth grade, I served as the head of the arts group as well as student director of my elementary school library. By the end of 1977, I'd already taken notes on about 1,600 books, the majority of which were Russian and Soviet literature and European and American literary works. There were also neibu (内部), [3] or “internal,” titles such as Is the Soviet Union a Socialist State? and The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich.

From the Criticize Lin Biao and Confucius campaign and the attack of Zhou Enlai by innuendo carried out by the state media in 1974, to the Tiananmen Tomb Sweeping Day Incident[4] in 1976, official actions escalated the people's resentment of the Gang of Four. I would often have discussions with friends and even a small number of adults regarding our worries about the future of China.

Just before the summer holiday in 1976, the cadres from the school Communist Youth League Committee gathered for a week of study. The meeting was long and dull. I couldn't stop myself from expressing some criticisms. I said: Although Deng Xiaoping has been struck down again, some of what he has said is actually quite correct. For example, he said meetings should be short, and we should be effective, seize scientific and technical education, guarantee that transportation runs on schedule, and boost the national economy, etc. I hadn't even finished speaking when the Communist Youth League secretary promptly interrupted me and said: You actually dare to publicly suggest reversing the verdict on Deng Xiaoping? I'm now announcing that all your positions in the League are revoked immediately, and you must carry out a serious self-criticism.

After that, I refused to do a self-criticism and I stopped attending any more internal meetings of the League. A month after the overthrow of the Gang of Four in 1976, League cadres who sympathized with me reported my case to the factory's Communist Youth League Committee, and the loudspeakers in the factory and school districts began to broadcast my case: that when the Gang of Four was running amuck, I'd dared to go against the tide and stuck to the correct viewpoint. The former Communist Youth League party secretary also privately apologized to me.

My university major was English and American languages and literature, which gave me the opportunity to come into contact with many English-language books, periodicals, and movies. In addition to being infatuated with reading about the Renaissance and reading English classical literature, I also began to read Western philosophy and works on aesthetics. I also read some writings on international economics, international finance, and management. At the time, I had relatively little access to books on economics, and only remember reading Samuelson's textbook Economics, An Introductory Analysis and Milton and Rose Friedman's Free to Choose: A Personal Statement. The latter made a very deep impression on me.

From the summer of 1984 to the summer of 1987, I worked in the government's foreign affairs office, with my day-to-day work focusing on oral interpretation and written translation. I also provided provincial and city officials with background information on Western countries and analysis of trends. During this period, I also had an opportunity to accompany leaders on inspection trips to Western developed countries. In May 1987, I took an overseas study selection examination that was a joint project between the State Economic Commission and Canada. The test included a written exam, an oral exam, and two separate rounds of in-person interviews with Chinese and Canadian experts. Finally, six people were chosen from more than 700 applicants. There were some sons and daughters of provincial-level leaders who were not selected, and so it can be said that the exam was relatively fair and equitable.

I was sent to the University of Toronto for a year to study management. Shortly after returning to China, I was sent to the University of San Francisco to study in an EMBA program. For several days after the June Fourth Incident in 1989, I was no longer in the mood to study. Every day I was glued to CNN's live broadcasts learning about the June Fourth Massacre. I felt boundless grief, and urgently wanted to know the whereabouts of my younger brother and whether he was safe. At the time, he'd traveled from outside Beijing with a classmate and had gone to Tiananmen Square.

During a period after June Fourth, both the United States government and Taiwan provided all sorts of aid and opportunities to students and visitors from China. I could have stayed in the United States and had received help and a pledge from a friend to assist me in making contacts to study for a PhD at U.C. Berkeley. At the time, my son was only a little more than one year old. In a long-distance phone call, my wife requested that I return to China, saying I would have other opportunities to go abroad. During the few years after I had returned to China, in addition to continuing my intensive studies of management and economic theory, I also did further reading on liberalism and public choice theory. In particular, I was profoundly influenced by the thinking of Ludwig von Mises, Friedrich August Hayek, Milton Friedman, James Buchanan, Ronald Coase, Gary Becker, and other great masters.

After obtaining my doctorate in economics from Fudan University in the summer of 2000, I moved to Peking University's (PKU) China Center for Economic Research to do post-doctoral research with Professor Lin Yifu. In July 2002, I took up a teaching position at the School of Economics of PKU, where I also began to do research in the history of economic thought, institutional economics, and the history of economics. Beginning in 2001, I began to do more focused reading in political science, law, and historical documents. In addition, I became even more involved in the discussion of public policy and public affairs, and I was greatly influenced and encouraged by Li Shenzhi,[5] Bao Zunxin,[6] Yang Xiaokai,[7] Mao Yushi,[8] Liu Junning,[9] He Weifang,[10] Liu Xiaobo,[11] Qian Yingyi,[12] Chen Zhiwu,[13] and many other scholars. After I signed Charter 08 in 2008, I was viewed by the authorities as a dissident. I was the target of all sorts of threats and pressure, and was even subjected to police monitoring and restriction of movements.

Through combing over and pondering political philosophy, comparative politics, the history of development of liberalism and political science, the history of economics, and institutional economics, I became even more firm in my standpoint and pursuit: that ending one party-autocracy and totalitarian rule, guaranteeing the basic rights and freedoms of citizens, and realizing constitutional democracy, rule of law, and individual freedoms and choices are key factors for establishing a federal republic with a system of checks and balances on power in China. And the basic path toward achieving constitutional goals is to promote the realization of peaceful transformation or evolution through the gradual formation and strengthening of civil society. However, in a situation where there is an autocratic power that brutally cracks down on and opposes the people, we cannot rule out a spontaneously-organized resistance comprising those within and outside the system.

English translation by Human Rights in China.

Translator's notes

[1] Lin Biao was Mao’s handpicked successor but, in 1970, a growing distrust began to develop between the two. He died on September 13, 1971, in a plane in Mongolia. Several members of Lin’s family were also on board. The official explanation stated that Lin was defecting to the Soviet Union after his failed attempt to assassinate Mao.

[2] Huang Shuai, a 5th grade student in 1973, wrote to the Beijing Daily denouncing the practice of treating teachers with dignity as a slavish old custom. She was immediately turned into a model of “going against the tide” by communist authorities.

[3] Neibu designates restricted circulation only within certain government unit(s) or department(s).

[4] On April 4-5, 1976, public security forces removed the thousands of wreaths on Tiananmen Square which had been laid by citizens mourning Premier Zhou Enlai’s death in January that year. Mourners, returned to the Square on April 5, and several thousands were arrested that night.

[5] Li Shenzhi (李慎之) is a former International Editor-in-Chief and Deputy Director of the Xinhua News Agency, and Vice-President of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences. Li was dismissed from his position in 1990 for criticizing the regime, and later became a powerful proponent of Chinese liberalism.

[6] Bao Zunxin (包遵信) is a dissident and Chinese historian who was jailed for his involvement in the 1989 Democracy Movement.

[7] Yang Xiaokai (杨小凯) is one of the world's most influential theorists in economic analysis and an advocate for democracy in China.

[8] Mao Yushi (茅于轼) is a Chinese economist who was labeled a rightist in 1958. He is the winner of the 2012 Milton Friedman Prize for Advancing Liberty awarded by the Cato Institute.

[9] Liu Junning (刘军宁) is a liberal political scientist known for his opposition to the concept of “Asian Values” and the idea that Asia should not follow liberal democracies in its political development.

[10] He Weifang (贺卫方) is a Peking University professor and prominent advocate of judicial reform in China.

[11] Liu Xiaobo (刘晓波) is a human rights activist serving an 11-year prison term for his participation in drafting Charter 08. He is the 2010 Nobel Peace Prize laureate.

[12] Qian Yingyi (钱颖一) is the Dean of the School of Economics and Management at Tsinghua University. His main research areas include comparative and institutional economics and the Chinese economy.

[13] Chen Zhiwu (陈志武) is a Professor of Finance at Yale School of Management, who specializes in finance theory, securities valuation, and the economy of China.

Xia Yeliang (夏业良)

Xia Yeliang (夏业良), born in 1960, is a liberal economist with a Ph.D. in economics. Xia has previously worked in government departments, research institutes, and universities, and has taught at the Anhui Institute of Economic Management, Fudan University, and Peking University. His research areas include institutional economics, constitutional theory and the Chinese revolution, economic history and the history of economic thought, macroeconomics and public policy, and labor economics.

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