Skip to content Skip to navigation

Our life-long struggle for human rights

October 25, 2000

The story behind the New Culture Forum Web site

 

 

Although the central theme of the New Culture Forum, set up by dissidents in Shandong, was promoting a spirit of compromise with the Chinese Communist Party and eschewing acts likely to provoke the authorities, such as setting up organizations, in August it was closed down after a few brief months of operation. But the ideas it contained were many years in the making, writes Xin Dakun, representing the site’s fictitious sponsor, Xin Wenming, a collective name which is also a homonym for “new culture.”

 

 

 

 

 


 

 

The Chinese democratic movement has been in existence for more than 20 years now. To keep in step with the global trend of democratization, the government of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) finally accepted the principle of the universality of human rights, and has signed the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. It has also indicated that it will follow the path of democracy and rule of law. Although these are only promises, they are still signs of progress....

In the autumn of 1978, just at the time of the rehabilitation of the April Fifth Movement, the Democracy Wall lit the spark of the democratic movement. [Also known as the Tiananmen Incident, on and around April 5, 1976, thousands of demonstrators gathered spontaneously in Tiananmen Square to mourn former Premier Zhou Enlai, using the opportunity to express their criticism of the regime. After several days, they were violently dispersed by police, and many were imprisoned.] At the time, I was studying equipment manufacturing at the Qingdao Cadres and Workers Part-Time University. Because I was from a “five black categories” family, I did not have a proper job, or the right to apply to the formal universities. During a chance visit to Beijing, I witnessed and was deeply moved by the democratic atmosphere. I saw hope emerge from under the CCP’s iron rule. I realized that the disasters China had suffered were due to lack of democracy, and my family’s misfortunes were due to the lack of human rights. From then on, I committed myself to the path of fighting for human rights.

 

 

 

 

 

 

EARLY DAYS

 

On July 1, 1979, a student at the Qingdao Chemical College posted some notices announcing meetings to discuss problems by the waterfront. Out of curiosity, I went to see what was going on, but the discussion did not take place because the police had arrested the organizers. However, I met a group of new friends. We immediately felt that we had known each other a long time, and met frequently in Zhongshan Park to discuss various topics, from our life values to the country’s future. Mu Chuanheng and I both thought that it was time to start a group to push forward the movement. After repeated discussions, we decided to name the group Friends of Democracy Study Group. Mu was already under the surveillance of Public Security Bureau (PSB).... so we decided that I would be named as the sponsor of the Study Group. We set up various departments, and began publication of Loyal Friendship Forum.

Everyone had the freedom to join or to leave the Study Group, but the formal members had to register. When all the preparatory work had been completed, 30 registered members and a number of friends and observers attended our initial conference in the library of the Qingdao No.4 Textile Machinery Factory. We had very enthusiastic and lively discussions. The Study Group was the first public, independent democratic organization set up in Qingdao at the time. Its founding marked the beginning of the organized development of the democratic movement in the city.

The Study Group adopted an approach based on openness, pragmatism and rationality. We encouraged our members to reach out to people in society. Loyal Friendship Forum became a vehicle for circulating news about the democratic movement, to push for human rights development, to criticize the social ills of the time, to fight for justice and to spread the influence of our group. We organized weekly study sessions to improve our understanding and theoretical level. By attempting to register the Study Group and the Forum with the authorities, we made them acknowledge our existence, at least tacitly, so as to promote the idea that constructive opposition forces were necessary. When the Soviet Union massed its military forces along its border with Poland, threatening Solidarity, the Polish independent union movement, we immediately convened meetings to discuss the matter, and put up news posters on the streets so that more people could learn about and support the cause of Solidarity. All members did the work in their spare time, and donated money they had been saving for their weddings to support the organization’s activities.

In late summer of 1980, the democratic magazines reached a high point of activism around the country. Students at universities in Beijing stood up to run for election to the local People’s Congress. The National Association of Independent Publications was founded, and some independent magazines in Beijing began preparations for a joint association. Just at that time, the well-known democracy advocate Chen Erjin was invited to join the editorial team of Talent Magazine, a publication produced by the reformist forces around Hu Yaobang. Chen wrote to Mu Chuanheng to invite him to Beijing to observe the university elections and the consolidation of the democratic magazines in Beijing. So Mu handed all the work of the Study Group over to me.

 

 

 

 

 

 

RALLY BRINGS FIRST PROBLEMS

 

That winter, although snow was already powdering the city, the democratic movement was as lively as ever, and the work of the Study Group was going strong. Just then, Fang Jue, then a student at Beijing University, sent us a publications law he had drafted. [Former reformist official Fang Jue is now serving a four-year prison term on trumped up fraud charges.] He hoped that we could solicit support for it by collecting signatures. After repeated discussions among all members of the Study Group, we decided to stage a rally on January 1, 1981, at Huiquan Square in Qingdao. We were concerned to choose a location that would not affect traffic, the city’s appearance or business, so as to avoid intervention from the authorities.... Li Xielin and I were chosen as the speakers for the rally. Ten days before the scheduled rally, we printed and put up many posters announcing the purpose, time and location of the event, and urged all citizens to join us.

A few days later, the PSB and the Party secretary at my company came to talk to me. They said that the rally was illegal, and that they hoped I would not cause trouble for the city and the leadership of my company, since doing so would cause me problems. I argued that by collecting signatures for a draft publications law we were only performing our civic duty, that it was a demonstration of our respect for the rule of law and was worthy of the authorities’ support. Finally the Party secretary said, “Think it over. So far, the company has treated you nicely and allowed you to attend the part-time university.” At that time, I was working part-time and studying part-time, and was in my senior year, close to graduation. Threatening my right to education really affected me, and in the end I agreed to think over what he had said.

But when I talked with Mu Chuanheng, I found out that Li Xielin had already canceled his speech because he could not take that day off from work. If I were not to give a speech, then nobody would do so. So I just swallowed the PSB’s threats, since I thought that I shouldn’t let my personal matters affect everything. The posters had already been put up, we had to be responsible to the public and our own reputation, otherwise it would be impossible to continue the Study Group’s work. After an emergency meeting in Mu’s tiny room, we decided to go ahead with the rally as announced....

As the year ended, in the evening the sky changed face and an icy west wind suddenly came up, adding to the sense of foreboding. At 9:00pm, I was at home preparing my speech for the next day, when a loud knocking was heard at the door. I quickly opened it to find the head of the Neighborhood Committee accompanying a number of police officers. I was taken from home to the PSB’s Taidong Branch, where they questioned me into the night. I insisted that our activities complied with the Constitution, and were beneficial to the people’s interests.... After midnight, they brought my parents and my two younger brothers there to put pressure on me. My father had been persecuted in the Cultural Revolution, and had suffered injuries to his back and legs. He also had serious high blood pressure. My mother had severe heart problems. As soon as they saw me, my parents, who were already elderly, knelt down in front of me and begged me not to go ahead with organizing the rally or speaking at it. Tears ran down my cheeks when I witnessed this scene. I promised them that I would follow their instructions. But rage toward the authorities was burning in my chest.

On the way home, on the pretext of going to the toilet, I ran off to Mu Chuanheng’s home. I arrived there at 3:00am and told him what had happened. We prepared for the worst, and agreed that if I was arrested the next day, then he would lead the others in demanding my release. But that night, my parents hid all my clothes so that I could not go out the next day. I had to ask my younger brother, Xin Dahong, to notify Mu Chuanheng, so Mu could go to the Square to participate in the rally in my stead.

The first day of 1981 was extremely cold and cloudy with a light flurry of snow. For the first time since the CCP had taken power, a rally organized by dissidents was held in Qingdao, on the square in front of the municipal government. This was a glorious moment in the history of the democratic movement in China. The members of the Study Group led, organized and participated in the event....

In the early spring of 1981, on the orders of Deng Xiaoping, the National People’s Congress eliminated the Chinese people’s “four great freedoms” from the Constitution. All democratic organizations and publications were made illegal.... People who had been involved in such activities were ordered to “confess” to their units or to the local police, and investigations were launched into related activities and individuals. In this tense political atmosphere, many unofficial magazines had to cease publication, and some went underground. There was no way for the Qingdao Friends of Democracy Study Group to continue its public activities....

But Mu Chuanheng and I wanted to let the public know that the group still existed. We celebrated the [Tiananmen Incident] anniversary by making a large wreath, composed of a scroll decorated with paper flowers with a poem by Mu about democracy dedicated to the April Fifth spirit. Below the poem, we signed the name, “Friends of Democracy Study Group.” Early that morning, we hung this scroll high on a pagoda at the Qingdao Heroes Memorial....

 

 

 

 

 

 

SENT TO PRISON

 

At that time, the authorities were preparing a nationwide campaign of arrests.

At around 10:00pm on April 12, 1981, I heard a pounding on the door. I was already prepared for this to happen. As expected, when I opened the door, seven or eight men in police uniforms rushed in, and showed me a search warrant and a detention order. One of them said: “You are being arrested for spreading counterrevolutionary propaganda, organizing illegal associations and publishing illegal magazines.” I was under almost continuous interrogation for seven days and seven nights. I believed that since we had not committed any crimes, they would release me at the end of the interrogation. But on the eighth day, they handed me a judgment that stated that I would be sent to serve a three-year sentence in a labor camp without any trial. This made me realize more acutely the brutality of the authoritarian system and the importance of democracy.

I was sent to Changle Labor Reeducation Center in Weifang. It was a lime manufacturing plant. I was forced to carry lime stones weighing more than 100 pounds from the mine to the storage area even when my knee was injured and I could hardly walk. An “improvement” in the treatment I received was to be assigned to manage inmates who were suffering from infectious diseases, such as tuberculosis and hepatitis. Less than half a year after my release, I discovered I too had become infected with TB, and I had to stay in hospital for more than a month.

In the labor camp I witnessed at first hand the cruelty of the Reeducation Through Labor system. It is a barbarous system which violates the most basic human rights....

In 1982, under the more liberal regime of [former CCP General Secretary] Hu Yaobang, the treatment of some political dissidents improved somewhat. Mu Chuanheng and Sun Weibang were released in the summer. They immediately began to help me to appeal. My labor camp term was reduced and I was released that August. At first, I was allowed to go back to my previous job. But the PSB officers visited the company to investigate me and ordered me to report to them at least once every month. For 10 years, I felt as if I were still in the labor camp. After working for almost 20 years, my salary was still only 31.25 yuan a month, hardly enough to keep me from starving. In 1991, I moved to another company with a higher salary. But I was soon fired, because my new employer was harassed by the PSB, and was concerned about losing business as a result. Every time I found a job, I would lose it almost immediately after my new employer was contacted by the police. I had to live from doing odd jobs at the lowest wages. For more than ten years, I have been living in this financially insecure condition, without any political rights and without any hope for the future....

Almost everyone in the Friends of Democracy Study Group has had similar experiences. From being “men without capital” we became “men without meals.” But we have always maintained contact as friends, and frequently meet to discuss current politics....

During the 1989 student democracy movement, I observed the development of the protests in Beijing and took many pictures. In order not to cause trouble to the students, Mu Chuanheng and I decided not to join the students in the decision making, but only participated as outsiders. After the crackdown in 1989, Mu and I were not bothered by the PSB, because they did not have any evidence against us. But Sun Weibang was arrested and sentenced to 20 years in prison merely because he talked with the students and openly expressed his opinions.

 

 

 

 

 

 

CONSTRUCTING A VIRTUAL “DEMOCRACY WALL”

 

After June Fourth, the democratic political space further contracted, so Mu and I decided to continue our promotion of democracy in this time of CCP suppression under the rubric of “having extensive friendly contact, but not setting up any formal organization.” We decided to keep in touch with individuals and groups in the democratic movement both inside and outside the country, to conduct research into theoretical issues regarding democracy and human rights and to protest vocally against any persecution of dissidents....

By 1995, Mu had completed a basic framework he called New Culture theory. Initially, we sent the results of his study to friends around the country by mail. But we soon found out that communication by mail was slow, expensive and unreliable. From 1997, Yan Peng and I started to publish Mu’s articles on the Internet on various electronic magazines. These pieces advocated the New Culture ideas of “mutual compromise, reconciliation among all citizens, same democracy for all people and a win-win policy for mutual coexistence.” The New Culture theory gradually attracted the notice of independent intellectuals and media inside and outside China.....

In 1999, to commemorate the twentieth anniversary of the Democracy Wall Movement and to make New Culture theories more widely known, we decided to set up a pro-democracy Web site in China. The New Culture Forum at www.xinwenming.net was launched on April 29, 2000. Besides myself, the core participants were Mu Chuanheng, Yan Peng, Jin Xiulan and others. It was the first publicly-registered, pro-democracy web site in China. The goal of the Forum was to publicize New Culture theory, and we published more than 30 articles on the subject.

Simply put, this theory is the highly abstract expression and theoretical amalgamation of the integrated development and universal harmony of nature, society and humankind. It represents direct comprehension, exploration and explanation of the mode of integrated existence in the whole universe and the laws of harmonious interaction, and is thus a testimony to the achievements of deduction and logic in the renewal of the human world view. It is a self expression of this newly-created theory from the standpoint of social ecology.

The aims of the New Culture Forum Web site are to be a medium for independent intellectuals to exchange ideas, to work towards creating a constructive opposition force, using the Web site as a way to make contacts, and to find a middle ground between the government and the opposition.

We advocate democracy in a moderate and conciliatory spirit, hoping to promote a shift away from the extreme polarization between government and opposition. We press the Chinese government to respect the following key political principles of modern civilization: “Only through respect for the opposition, protection of minorities, realization of individual rights, tolerance towards and acceptance of critical views and supervision by those with different ideas can uprightness and efficiency [in political life] be maintained.”....

During the four months of the Forum’s existence in China, dozens of moderate political articles advocating compromise were published. Many readers wrote to support this pragmatic approach. We did not receive any readers’ letters that were abusive or unpleasant. In just a few months, 2,221 hits were tallied on the Forum’s main page. Most of the visitors were Chinese intellectuals, dissidents and students, but there were also government employees, workers and rural residents.

Originally, New Culture Forum had an open bulletin board, which was very popular and attracted many messages from readers. However, we had to discontinue it because we did not have the capacity to handle the high volume of mail, and we were also concerned about security issues. The content of the site was also saved on disk and widely distributed to intellectuals, activists and others throughout China to make the site more accessible, saving them the high cost of reading on the Internet. To protect ourselves, we maintained the site by working in Internet cafes in China’s major cities. Thus, the PSB has not been able to locate us. Then on June 3, 2000, Huang Qi from Chengdu was arrested on subversion charges, purely because he published articles in his Tianwang electronic magazine commemorating June Fourth. For both my safety and the continuation of the Forum, on the urging of friends I left China.

On August 3, officers from the Beijing State Security Bureau’s Computer Inspection Office shut down the New Culture Forum Web site for posting “reactionary content.” They also blocked Internet access for users registered with the Million Internet Company, which was hosting the site. State Security officers repeatedly interrogated the general manager of Million Internet Company, Li Tao. They threatened the company’s complete shutdown if Xin Wenming, the registered sponsor of the New Culture Forum, was not turned in. Such persecution has caused concern in the international community.... The New Culture Forum, in the name of Xin Wenming, issued a statement denouncing the government’s suppression of freedom of speech and demanding that the government not harm Li Tao.

All members of the New Cultural Forum thank readers and all friends who have helped and supported this initiative. We hope the international media will continue to pay close attention to the development of the Forum.

This is a translation of excerpts of a longer article in Chinese. Xin Dakun is now in the United States.