Xu Zhangrun (許章潤, 1962-) is a professor of law at Tsinghua University in Beijing. In a series of major essays published from early 2016 to early 2019, Professor Xu questioned at length, and in detail, the political, economic and cultural trajectory of the People’s Republic of China under Xi Jinping, the leader of the nation’s party-state-army.
Profoundly concerned by a change to the constitution that garnered near universal approval from China’s legislature in March 2018 that granted Xi Jinping what is, for all intents and purposes, lifetime tenure as head of the nation’s party-state, Professor Xu felt compelled to speak out in an even more pointed manner.
In late July 2018, Xu published ‘Imminent Fears, Immediate Hopes’ — a Beijing Jeremiad 我們當下的恐懼與期待 (an annotated draft translation appeared in China Heritage on 1 August 2018). In this 10,000 word article — one written in a succinct and powerful form of literary Chinese — Xu not only questioned the Xi Jinping ‘dispensation’, he also offered concrete policy suggestions to counter the authoritarian revanchism of Xi’s ‘New Epoch’ 新時代. In a series of three interconnected works published from December 2018 to January 2019, Xu offered an overview of modern Chinese history, the role played in it by the Communist Party over the past seventy years, and the threat that it now poses not only to the continued modernisation of the country as it continues its struggle to become an equitable and responsible nation-state. He also alerted readers to the looming threat that China under Xi Jinping signifies for the international community.
Since mid 2018, Professor Xu’s works have generated widespread discussion — and sotto voce debate — in China; they have also attracted international attention. In late March 2019, the Communist Party Committee that administers Tsinghua University, Xu Zhangrun’s employer, informed him via the university’s Human Resources Office that his wages would be further reduced; that he was stripped of all of the duties and privileges as a professor at Tsinghua, effective immediately; and, that a formal Investigation Group would scruitinise in detail his activities and writings. Those investigation would inform the Party bosses, both at Tsinghua and in Zhongnanhai, how he would be further disciplined, cashiered or legally sanctioned.
Tsinghua University’s actions elicited an immediate response among some of Xu Zhangrun’s colleague, ranging from disbelief to outrage. The news also caused consternation among many Tsinghua graduates and within the wider community. We have translated some of those reactions below (see ‘Xu Zhangrun vs. Tsinghua University’).
In the persecution of Xu Zhangrun, which began surreptitiously at the behest of Chinese officialdom in August 2018, some of the country’s leading academics and intellectuals identify a ‘case study’ in the broader malaise affecting the country’s educational and cultural life. For years, it has been widely recognised that even the limited intellectual freedoms tolerated under previous Communist Party leaders were under increased threat as a result of the implementation of revived ideological controls throughout the publishing, academic and cultural spheres. With the circulation in 2013 of ‘Document Number Nine’, which alerted Party members about the infiltration of potentially destabilising ‘Western Values’, and in light of the trial and jailing in September 2014 of the respected, and moderate, Uyghur academic Ilham Tohti, even relatively naïve and hopeful independent-minded educators in the country’s universities and schools became tremulously aware of a rising tide of Communist Party obscurantism.
As we have repeatedly observed in China Heritage, however, the origins of the escalating crisis in Chinese education and culture has its origins in 1978. At that time, just as the Communists formally recognised the disaster their rule had visited upon the country and made a series of decisions that would form the basis of the four decades of what is known as Economic Reform and Global Openness 改革開放, they also made a fateful adjudication: at the urging of Deng Xiaoping, Hu Qiaomu and other ideologues it was decided that the repression of outspoken academics, intellectuals and others in 1957, known as the ‘Anti-Rightist Campaign’ was, in essence, correct. Although over 300,000 men and women unjustly persecuted due to that campaign were eventually exonerated, the charges against five ‘Rightists’ were upheld and used as an excuse to justify the purge, one that had been overseen by Mao Zedong and coordinated by the logistical genius, Deng Xiaoping.
The affirmation of the political necessity of the 1957 purge of intellectual and cultural life — along with the Thought Reform Movement of the early 1950s that initially crushed academic freedom (for more on this, see ‘Ruling The Rivers & Mountains’) — has repeatedly given the Party ideological license to police university life as it sees fit. In re-imposing stricter ideological controls on education, and particular in tertiary educational institutions, Xi Jinping’s party-state has merely been exercising prerogatives long ago made possible by major Party decisions announced in 1978, in 1987, and again after 4 June 1989 and repeatedly since then.
The ‘Xu Zhangrun Incident’, as some call it, is not merely about intellectual and academic freedom. Rather, it reflects the Xi-generated crisis in China’s ability to think about, debate and formulate ideas free of Communist Party manipulation, ideas that rightful could and should benefit Chinese society, the nation and the world as a whole.
‘The Xu Zhangrun Archive’, or ‘Xu Case File’ — which is located under Projects in the menu bar of China Heritage — offers some of the key works in Professor Xu’s recent oeuvre, as well as a sample of reactions to those works and an overview of his ongoing persecution. New material will be added to the Archive as it becomes available.
My thanks, as always, to Reader #1 who, despite being cloaked in anonymity, graces this work in a most visible way: by alerting me to embarrassing typographical errors, as well as by making timely and felicitous suggestions that have improved these translations.
— Geremie R. Barmé
Editor, China Heritage
16 April 2019
A Note on China Heritage
China Heritage is a continuation and expansion of the China Heritage Project established by Geremie R. Barmé in 2005 and the e-journal China Heritage Quarterly, which appeared under the auspices of that project from 2005 until 2012.
China Heritage, which was launched in December 2016, is also the online home of The Wairarapa Academy for New Sinology 白水書院, conceived by John Minford and Geremie R. Barmé, and its projects. The Academy is based in Wairarapa, New Zealand. Its ‘sororal site’, China Heritage Annual, was launched in March 2017, and A New Sinology Reader is in development.
The work of China Heritage is self-funded: We are indebted to none and beholden to no one.
An Open Letter to Tsinghua University
5th of April 2019
Dr. Qiu Yong
President, Tsinghua University
Dear President Qiu,
Tsinghua University, one of the most highly ranked universities in the world, has suffered severe damage to its academic reputation as a consequence of the university’s punishment of Professor Xu Zhangrun.
As members of the international academic community, we urge the university to restore Professor Xu’s normal status in the university, including his teaching and research duties, and to refrain from any further sanctions against him.
- For the list of signatories, see ‘An Open Letter to Tsinghua University, signed and sealed’, China Heritage, 22 April 2019
To Read the First Xu Zhangrun Open Letter/
Petition in Chinese (and translated into English), go to:
‘Speaking Up for a Man Who Dared to Speak Out’, China Heritage, 1 April, 2019
— Geremie R. Barmé
Editor, China Heritage
Geng Xiaonan 耿瀟男, a film critic and publisher, declared in an online post that Xu’s essays were:
Blows directed at their Achilles Heel;
A sword pointed at their Sacred Heart.
Xu Zhangrun’s Jeremiad, and After
July 2018 to December 2018
- Xu Zhangrun 許章潤, Imminent Fears, Immediate Hopes — a Beijing Jeremiad 我們當下的恐懼與期待, introduced and translated with notes by Geremie R. Barmé, China Heritage, 1 August 2018
- Xu Zhangrun 許章潤, And Teachers, Then? They Just Do Their Thing!, introduced, translated and annotated by Geremie R. Barmé, China Heritage, 10 November 2018
- Xu Zhangrun 許章潤, To Summon a Wandering Soul, China Heritage, 28 November 2018
After the Future in China
Xu Zhangrun’s Triptych for Today
From December 2018 to January 2019, Xu Zhangrun published three long, interconnected essays to commemorate the fortieth anniversary of the launch of what are know as China’s ‘Reform and Openness’ policies. Those essays are being translated with annotations in China Heritage in twelve parts. Only three of those twelve chapters have been published to date.
— GRB, March 2019
- Geremie R. Barmé, The Pirouette of Time — Introduction to ‘After the Future in China’, China Heritage, 28 January 2019
- Xu Zhangrun 許章潤, Humble Recognition, Boundless Possibility — Part I, trans. and annotated by Geremie R. Barmé, China Heritage, 31 January 2019
- Xu Zhangrun 許章潤, The State of a Civilisation — Humble Recognition, Boundless Possibility, Part II, China Heritage, 8 March 2019
- Xu Zhangrun 許章潤, China’s Red Empire — To Be or Not To Be (Translatio Imperii Sinici I), introduced and trans. G.R. Barmé, China Heritage, 16 January 2019
Xu Zhangrun vs. Tsinghua University
Voices of Protest & Resistance
- Chris Buckley, ‘A Chinese Law Professor Criticized Xi. Now He’s Been Suspended’, New York Times, 26 March 2019
- Guo Yuhua 郭於華, ‘J’accuse, Tsinghua University!’, China Heritage, 27 March 2019
- Zha Jianguo 查建國 et al, ‘Heads or Tails — Criticism and Xu Zhangrun’, China Heritage, 29 March 2019
- Anon., ‘Silence + Conformity = Complicity — reflections on university life in China today’, China Heritage, 30 March 2019 (revised 2 April 2019)
- Wang Changjiang 王長江, ‘Tsinghua University Gets a Lecture on Leadership from the Central Party School’, China Heritage, 31 March 2019
- Various hands, ‘Speaking Up for a Man Who Dared to Speak Out’, China Heritage, 1 April, 2019
- Zi Zhongyun 資中筠, ‘My Tsinghua Lament’, China Heritage, 3 April 2019
- ‘An Open Letter to the President of Tsinghua University’, China Heritage, 5 April 2019
- The Editor and Tao Haisu 陶海粟, ‘Poetic Justice — a protest in verse’, China Heritage, 5 April 2019
- Xia Li’an 夏立安 and Gu Wanming 顧萬明, ‘Throw Him Out Now! No, Give Him His Job Back!’, China Heritage, 8 April 2019
- Zhang Weiying 張維迎, ‘There’s Just No Shutting You Up! — a Shaanbei Serenade’, China Heritage, 10 April 2019
- Feng Ling 風靈, ‘Sweep Away All Professors! Make China’s Universities Safe Spaces!’, China Heritage, 12 April 2019
- ‘An Open Letter to Tsinghua University — Signatories, 5-12 April 2019’, China Heritage, 12 April 2019
- Samuel Wade, ‘Digesting the Tsinghua Protests’, China Heritage, 14 April 2019
- Ian Johnson, ‘A Specter Is Haunting Xi’s China: “Mr. Democracy”‘, NYR Daily, 19 April 2019
- Zhang Qianfan 張千帆, ‘The Professor, a University & the Rule of Law’, China Heritage, 22 April 2019
- ‘An Open Letter to Tsinghua University, signed and sealed’, China Heritage, 22 April 2019
- Human Rights Watch, ‘Lessons for the Learned — Twelve Ways to Resist’, 23 April 2019
- The Xu Zhangrun Archive, China Heritage, 1 August 2018-
Select Essays by Xu Zhangrun in Chinese
The Chinese Intelligentsia & Patriotic Education
- The Editor and Others, Drop Your Pants! The Party Wants to Patriotise You All Over Again (Part I) — Ruling The Rivers & Mountains, China Heritage, 8 August 2018
- The Editor and Others, The Party Empire — Drop Your Pants! The Party Wants to Patriotise You All Over Again (Part II), China Heritage, 17 August 2018
- The Editor and Others, Homo Xinensis — Drop Your Pants! The Party Wants to Patriotise You All Over Again (Part III), China Heritage, 31 August 2018
- The Editor and Others, Homo Xinensis Ascendant — Drop Your Pants! The Party Wants to Patriotise You All Over Again (Part IV), China Heritage, 16 September 2018
- The Editor and Others, Homo Xinensis Militant — Drop Your Pants! The Party Wants to Patriotise You All Over Again (Part V), China Heritage, 1 October 2018