Xu Zhiyong was one of China’s most prominent rights advocates when he was arrested in 2013 and then sentenced to prison for his role in founding the New Citizens Movement, a grass-roots group that sought to work within China’s system to improve the rule of law.
Mr. Xu described his imprisonment, part of a broader crackdown on Chinese civil society under President Xi Jinping, in an essay translated and published this week on the website China Change. In recent years, hundreds of rights activists and lawyers have been imprisoned or disappeared. Many have retreated into silence or fled overseas. But a few, including Mr. Xu, who was released in mid-2017, are still speaking out.
‘Are you done performing?’
While being held before his trial at Beijing’s No. 3 Detention Center, Mr. Xu was subjected to long interrogations on the New Citizens Movement, including on who else was involved. Mr. Xu said he spoke about the movement’s ideas — like its demand for disclosure of senior officials’ personal wealth and for better access to education for migrant workers’ children — but refused to incriminate anyone, even when deprived of sleep.
Mr. Xu had been interrogated many times before, like in 2005, when he was beat up in the city of Linyi for visiting the blind lawyer Chen Guangcheng. But this time, his interrogators tried a different tactic.
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 as 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.
‘There is joy everywhere’
As his trial began in January 2014, Mr. Xu and his lawyers held no hope for a fair outcome. The judge had even refused to let their witnesses testify. So they decided to use silence as a means of protest until Mr. Xu tried to deliver a combative closing statement that was later widely circulated on Chinese social media.
In the end, the four-year sentence on charges of “gathering a crowd to disturb public order” was no surprise, he wrote. But for his wife, who had given birth to their daughter just two weeks earlier, “it was much too long.”
Still, Mr. Xu was ever the optimist.
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.
Prison life and ‘The Federalist Papers’
One month into his term, Mr. Xu was transferred to Liulin Prison in Tianjin. Inmates were expected to work, but Mr. Xu also had access to the prison library.
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 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 Misérables” 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’m back, China’
In October 2014, Mr. Xu was transferred to nearby Kenhua Prison, where he served out the remainder of his sentence. There, Mr. Xu wrote, he had a lot of time to think (“real, quiet thinking”), discuss philosophy with midlevel officials who had been convicted of corruption and write in his notebook.
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 Quran 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 kindhearted 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.