‘Adieu, China!’ — Jianying Zha’s Long Farewell

Spectres & Souls


The following exchange between Jianying Zha 查建英 and Katō Yoshikazu 加藤嘉一 stands as the introduction to Freedom Is Not Free — A New Decameron, the record of a conversation between the two writers — one from China, who is an American, and the other from Japan, who has been a long-term resident of China — that took place in Beijing over a ten-day period in August 2018 (although the authors made additions to the text that reflected their views of the 2019-2020 Hong Kong Uprising).

Freedom Is Not Free 《自由不是免費的——新十日談》 appeared through Oxford University Press in November 2020. The conversation between Zha and Katō was facilitated, recorded and transcribed by Chen Zhuo 陳卓, a Beijing-based editor. Frustrated by the institutional gauntlet of censorship on the Mainland, the full text of the book was eventually shepherded to publication by Lam To-kwan 林道群 in Hong Kong.

Jianying Zha and Katō Yoshikazu’s ‘new decameron’ is a rare commodity for it offers from Beijing an open and heartfelt exchange between two engaged cultural figures about the state of China, the Sino-American conundrum, the future of East Asia and how their own lives have been and are intermeshed with all of these issues. In what we have frequently referred to as Xi Jinping’s ‘Silent China’, this conversation adds to our account of what is known in modern China as the ‘Independent Spirit and the Mind Unfettered’ 獨立之精神,自由之思想.

I am grateful to Jianying for granting me permission to translate and publish the following discussion, one that begins at the end of her ‘decameron’ with Katō-san.


‘Freedom Is Not Free’ is a common expression in America, one that usually means that the price of freedom is vigilance, or that freedom is only guaranteed by military might. The words Freedom Is Not Free are engraved into one wall at the Korean War Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C. (for our reflection on the outbreak of the Korean War in 1950, see ‘Celebrating the Egg-fried Rice Festival in West Korea’, China Heritage, 1 November 2020).

This conversation is both a chapter in Viral Alarm — China Heritage Annual 2020, as well as being a prelude to China Heritage Annual 2021, the theme of which will be Spectres & Souls. The 2021 China Heritage Annual will feature further translations from the Zha-Katō conversation.

— Geremie R. Barmé
Editor, China Heritage
10 November 2020


Further Excerpts from ‘A New Decameron’:


On the November 2020 US Presidential Election:


Jianying Zha in China Heritage:

‘China’s Heart of Darkness — Prince Han Fei & Chairman Xi Jinping’:

So, I say: Adieu, China. You are no longer mine, and I am no longer yours.

— Jianying Zha


Jianying Zha and Katō Yoshikazu, Beijing, August 2018


Has This Submissive Nation
Squandered Its Suffering?

In Lieu of an Introduction to
Freedom Is Not Free

Jianying Zha 查建英
in conversation with
Katō Yoshikazu 加藤嘉一

Translated and annotated by Geremie R. Barmé


Jianying Zha (Zha):

We’ve been talking for a full ten days, but it’s only now that I’ve come to the realisation that, although I feel that I’ve got much more to say about America, as far as China goes, I’ve pretty much talked myself out. All that’s left is a sense of numbness and despondency.

Today, the Chinese mainland is ruled by a ‘Party Empire’; civil society has withered; the media bristles with hyper nationalist propaganda on the one hand and mindless popular entertainment on the other — there’s virtually no space for debate or rational discussion. The younger generations identify with the ‘China Model’ and are contemptuous of such Western ideas as freedom and democracy. And an SS-like ‘Puce Army’ crowds the online world like an occupying force while, for its part, the party-state system is peopled with compliant and fawning bureaucrats who simply go along with it all. Meanwhile, in the academy there is no dearth of scholars who are bereft of principles but brimming with ambition.

The authorities repress dissent and all forms of opposition relentlessly, and that includes the unilateral imposition of the National Security Law in Hong Kong and the vast network of ‘concentration camps’ that they’ve built in Xinjiang. The few heroic individuals who dare to raise their voices are variously arrested, defamed, forcibly silenced or sentenced to jail.

The vast Chinese middle class which, in the past, seemed to be the real hope for further economic and social reform, simply bury their heads in the sand and focus their energies on material consumption. It seems that the only things people really care about are spending money and enjoying themselves, be it in drinking and eating or by indulging in various leisure-time pursuits.

The ‘liberals’ constitute a constricted circle that, at most, lets off steam by mumbling a few impotent words of disaffection. Some have even placed their hopes for change in the policies of Donald Trump and Mike Pompeo.

It leaves you wondering whether the informed members of society, the ‘Celestials’ in this new ‘Celestial Empire’, are simply lost in their own wet dreams? If that’s the case, the longer this dark night goes on, the more lurid their dreams may well become.

Katō Yoshikazu (Katō):

I can completely relate to the way you have summed things up.

Just before Beijing formally launched the National Security Law a high-level Party official stationed in the Western District representative office [in the city] told me that: ‘The importance of Hong Kong is less than zero when it comes to vouchsafing national sovereignty and security.’ I must say that I took him at his word, and I believe that his remarks reflect the way the Communists regard Hong Kong and its position in the overall Chinese constellation. As someone who frequently writes commentaries about Hong Kong issues, as well as about Chinese politics and the Sino-American relationship, I have no doubt that I will also be subject to the strictures of the National Security Law.

In fact, shortly after the law was enacted [on 1 July 2020], a ‘mysterious individual’ gave me a warning: ‘Don’t think that the law won’t apply to you, too’. According to what they told me, if ‘they’ [that is, the Communist authorities] come to regard me as being a foreigner predisposed to ‘interfering in China’s internal affairs’, then I may well be subject to detention, even if they don’t have any evidence of any wrongdoing on my part. Regardless of all of that, I have a relationship with Hong Kong, you could call it an affinity; it’s something I can’t help having but, despite that, I have no choice but to leave the city for a period so I can observe how things pan out from a distance. Of course, I’m deeply distressed by all of this since I truly love this place: its people, its orderliness, the very air you breathe, that sense of freedom that it exudes …


I myself lived in Hong Kong for two years and I also have a deep affection for the city. On the seventh day of our conversation we spoke about our connections to Hong Kong and our observations about it. Allow me to rework a famous line [from Mao Zedong]:

‘Hong Kong is China’s Hong Kong, but it is also global Hong Kong; yet, ultimately it belongs to the young people of Hong Kong. Hong Kong youth are full of hope and energy; they are at the height of their enthusiasm, like the sun at eight or nine o’clock in the morning. They are the hope of the future.’

[Note: Meeting with Chinese students and trainees in Moscow on 17 November 1957, Mao said: ‘The world is yours, as well as ours, but in the last analysis, it is yours. You young people, full of vigor and vitality, are in the bloom of life, like the sun at eight or nine in the morning. Our hope is placed on you. The world belongs to you. China’s future belongs to you.’]

I’m a Chinese person with American citizenship. Over the years, I often jokingly used a slogan I heard as a kid to describe my situation to Chinese friends, that I would make my own limited contribution to the grand and eternal friendship between the peoples of China and the United States.

However, the turn in the bilateral relationship between China and America in recent years means that things are moving in exactly opposite direction from what I hoped for. What’s more, I see no evidence that the relationship will improve in any meaningful way. Chinese people always like to [quote the pre-Qin thinker Zhuangzi and] talk about how everyone is transitory, passing by in the blink of an eye. But many people of my generation, that is friends with similar values to my own, share my sense of hopelessness, frustration and loss. We don’t think we will see any significant change in the Sino-American relationship in our lifetimes. Of course, I hope that there will be such a day but, in all honesty, I no longer think I will live to see it. If the Chinese themselves don’t aspire to see such a change, or if they are unwilling to save themselves, it won’t matter how many Trumps or Pompeos take the stage [to pressure Beijing].

[The Chinese-Australian economist] Yang Xiaokai once observed that China was in an inferior position because of its ‘latecomer disadvantage’ [of delayed development as a modern nation-state]. Though, in reality, I think that China is hamstrung by what I’d call a ‘rescue disadvantage’ [or ‘salvation complex’; that is, it waits for others to salvage the situation]. Chinese people have long grown accustomed to resigning themselves to accepting whatever fate throws their way. But is China really equal to the suffering that it has experienced? Are the Chinese deserving of such heroic figures like Lin Zhao or Liu Xiaobo?

As a Beijinger born and bred, I admit that we are an arrogant lot; we’re people who readily allow ourselves to succumb to historical amnesia. Now, after all this time has passed, can we say in all honesty that we have proved ourselves worthy of the emotional outpouring and material support given to us by the people of Hong Kong [during the Protest Movement] in 1989? Doesn’t the annual 4 June candle memorial in Victoria Park put us to shame time and time again?

Nowadays, I’m focussing my concerns on America — America’s not only my home, it’s also my heartland. Regardless of how overwhelming the problems facing America today may be, the basic system and the values of the place remain intact. Americans are still steadfast in their defense of freedom, and they embody an enthusiasm to pursue equality. The tensions between these [that is, the defense of freedom and the pursuit of equality, frequently figured in the multifaceted tensions between ‘The Right’ and ‘The Left’] will continue to enliven the society as a whole. I believe that, in my lifetime, I will see a further inflection point that will enable the United States to move on from its present rolling crises. I am a believer in that saying ‘give me liberty, or give me death!’ [attributed to Patrick Henry in 1775.]

Freedom does not come without a cost; but I am steadfast in my belief that, ultimately, freedom will be victorious.


Quite so. Freedom is not free; though, because it is hardwired in human nature, I too believe that freedom will be the victor. I also believe that, as human beings, the things we share outnumber the things that divide us, including the value of ‘truth, goodness and beauty’. I do not, in the final analysis, believe in the inhumanity of man.


I neither identify with, nor would submit myself to the regnant political system of China; nor can I relate to the direction in which the society is moving. What’s particularly devastating for me is the realisation that this situation is not merely the handiwork of a particular leader or of the government as such. Rather it reflects the internal logic and workings of a culture that has two millennia of history behind it. In the future, my own work and thinking will probably focus more on deeper historical and cultural matters.

As things continue to deteriorate around me, what concerns me most is the fate of Hong Kong and that of the brave individuals on the mainland who dare to resist. That includes friends on the mainland who neither identify with the system nor have the wherewithal to change it. More to the point: they can’t leave China.

It’s hard not to become emotional about this. Looking back over my life — I’m now sixty — I’m stunned to realise where I’ve ended up. For here we are in yet another era that is replete with ‘isms’: statism; nationalism; localism; tribalism; identity politics; conservatism. Over the past ten days we have touched on many topics that are intermeshed with one or more of these ‘isms’. So, if I had to pick just one from this pile of isms to badge myself, I’d probably have to choose ‘liberalism’. That is because I have come to the realisation that my present beliefs, those that I cleave to in this later stage of my life, still reflect my youthful aspirations: that is the simple and clear belief in a form of liberalism grounded in a basic faith in humanity, human rights, humanism and human dignity.

Whenever I think about the world from the perspective of a particular country, or a nation [say, China, for example], limiting myself to such a narrow point of view, more often than not I’m assailed by conflicted emotions, outrage, anxiety, hopelessness and even despair. When, however, I focus instead on actual individuals, that is on the inspiring and passionate people around me who value freedom and dignity, by contrast I have a strong sense of something that is profoundly intimate, engaging, amazing, worthy of respect, hopeful even, and suffused with love.

I remember that, a few years back, I told a classmate from my undergraduate days at Peking University that all that’s left for me in Beijing is the desire to catch up with some old friends and enjoy a few good Chinese meals. At the time, we were sharing a Mongolian hotpot at a small restaurant in a traditional-style courtyard near Ritan Park [in the east of the city, where Zha has an apartment]. The warmth of the steam rising from the bubbling hotpot was in stark contrast to the rather bleak snowscape outside. At first, my friend seemed a little taken aback by my declaration; then, after a moment’s reflection, he put down his chopsticks and, raising his wine cup, said:

‘I get it! Come on then, let’s you and I drink up!’

As recently as ten years ago, I never would have imagined that my feelings about China would end up where they are today. Yet, to be perfectly honest, although I had to go through a process of grieving to arrive at this point, I also feel as though a burden has been lifted. There’s a famous expression that sums up my emotional state perfectly, it’s ‘a tangle of sorrow and joy’ [悲欣交集]. Over the long years since I took up American citizenship in 1992, I’ve experienced a deep-seated, yet hard-to-describe, sense of guilt. It was though I had somehow betrayed my family, or that I was weighed down by an unrequited debt, one that I carried over from my old home.

Three decades have passed in what seems like the twinkling of an eye, and now here I am wondering if I haven’t just been going around in circles, emotionally and intellectually ending up in exactly the same place I found myself after the Fourth of June [in 1989]. Aren’t I that person again, one who [following the 4 June Beijing Massacre] was completely dispirited and at a loss?

Though now there’s a difference, and that’s because I can proudly tell my old self from thirty years ago that I have travelled a path that I chose for myself and I’ve done what I wanted to do. And, in the process, I really feel that I have said what I can and I have written what I could. No matter how limited my abilities or modest my accomplishment, there is one thing about which I am absolutely clear: I haven’t betrayed myself nor have I sold out my conscience. That, in itself, is something.

So, I say: Adieu, China. You are no longer mine, and I am no longer yours.


‘A tangle of sorrow and joy’, in the hand of Dharma Master Hongyi 弘一法師, written shortly before he died on 13 October 1942, at the age of sixty-two



I can completely relate to what you’re saying and it deeply moves me. Naturally, my perspective is quite different since, as a citizen of Japan, I have no plans to migrate to another country, nor will I be taking up foreign citizenship. But I will still be concerned with what’s unfolding in China and continue to pursue my research. That’s because of the importance of the country and because its evolution, successes and failures are also consequential to Japan’s future, as well as the fate of humanity. My hope is that I can keep the faith and believe that my efforts are beneficial to China as a whole; anyway, that’s what I can and will do. It’s an honest reflection of my present state of mind.

I was, after all, a long-distance runner in my younger days so, even now, what matters to me is knowing how to maintain a certain pace and rhythm while constantly moving forward. I also appreciate the importance of endurance.

I hope that, regardless of the changing environment in China that I will be able to continue writing in Japanese, Chinese and English. I want to do what I can and continue to be engaged with things Chinese. I also want to stick with running marathons.

I’m neither hopeful nor hopeless; my motto is: never forsake hopelessness, yet never give up hope. To give up is to give in so, as long as one is alive, one must persist. I believe that one’s state of being, or state of mind, is actually more important than the end result. I share Edward Said’s view that one needs to embrace the ‘romance of the amateur intellectual’. So, I’ll do what I can and not be stymied by things that are beyond me and I will devote my mental energy, my physical strength and my outraged passion to that end. For outrage is also an important emotion; and I’m often outraged, more so over the last two years here in Hong Kong; I’ve never been this furious before in my life. Though, I must say, I’m more angry with myself than anything else: angry about what I’ve failed to do, but for that there is no one to blame but myself. I’ve resigned myself to a ‘life of fury’; that is an emotion that will fuel my onward journey.


I very much appreciate your approach, your ‘Kato-esque Japanese perspective’. It’s one from which I have benefitted considerably over these ten days. Regardless of what I’ve said, I’ll keep following what’s happening in China and keep researching it, though from now on I’ll probably increasingly focus on writing in English. In part, that’s because I don’t want to have my work emasculated, or to be forced to lobotomise my thinking.

Now that we are reaching the end of our Decameron, I really should thank you and Chen Zhuo [the Beijing editor who encouraged and oversaw the project, including recording and transcribing the exchange] for inviting me to participate in the 2018 Reading Salon which has allowed us to talk with you like this.

It never occurred to me that one could produce a book in this way. I recall facing that roomful of fresh young faces at the 706 Youth Space in Beijing. There we engaged in an exchange that was marked by a spirit of lively candour and real warmth. It was different from our previous encounter at Phoenix TV. That’s because the first was somewhat more personal and the latter was recorded for TV. The topic was also fresh: my feelings about the United States in the wake of the 2016 presidential election, my fears and hopes, uncertainty and dilemmas. From that election, we were all going through something that was very different, forcing me to re-evaluate my thinking and relationship with America, my adopted homeland. It also led me to confront and attempt to articulate the original impetus that led me to go to America at age twenty-one. That was the first time I appreciated how I could relate my ‘America Story’ to a larger audience, something I could do by means of this kind of staged conversation.


Of course, I was grateful that you participated in that salon, an occasion that was, frankly, also the most enthusiastic and exciting exchange I had ever experienced in Beijing. It was also significant for me that our conversation took place at a venue not too far from my Chinese alma mater.


That’s right. We met via Wen Tao’s TV chat show ‘Behind the Headlines’ and we realised that we are fellow graduates from Peking University, despite the fact that we had studied there twenty-five years apart. I found that you were a very companionable conversationalist and I soon felt confident that we could collaborate in some way. Anyway, I’m one of those people who acts on intuition, just as I have in this case.

I’m grateful both to you and to Chen Zhuo for your encouragement and for being so sympatico in allowing me to avail myself of this opportunity to create our own ‘Decameron’. It has helped me revisit and reconsider the forty years during which I’ve been travelling back and forth between China and America.

Over the years I have been able to tell my American readers a few stories about China, but the present opportunity gives me a chance to address Chinese readers in my mother tongue on the topic of America. It’s been a cathartic process.


We must thank you for indulging us. I have always appreciated your standpoint and the artistry of your story-telling. From my perspective this dialogue was really conceived of as being nothing more complicated than being an excuse to join you in conversation.

Ten days is both quite a long time, and barely time enough. There’s an inexhaustible number of topics that we could address, but we’ll have to satisfy ourselves with those that we have touched on here.

Who can tell what the future will bring? There’s always another dawn; if we keep going we are sure to see it.



Freedom Is Not Free, cover


Chinese Text:






加藤嘉一(加):對於您如今黨國一統天下的中國之描述和總結,我也感同身受。這兩年在香港親歷了中共強推「國安法」的過程,香港人對此感到的恐懼和進行的抗爭,以及香港陷入美中戰略競爭的戰場的始末。我感覺到,中共這次是動了真格,香港不再是原來的香港,只好逐步從「高度自治」到「低度自治」,從「一國兩制」到「一國一制」,恐怕等不到2047年( 如很多日本人推),除非北京發生變天。中共正式制定「國安法」前夕,中共駐港某官員在西環對我說了一句話:「在國家主權和安全面前,香港甚麼也不是。」我相信他說的是真話,也是中共對香港的真實認識和定位。經常就香港問題、中國政治、美中關係等發聲的我恐怕也算是「國安法」要管轄的對象吧。該法成立後,有個「神秘人物」警告我「不要以為國安法跟你無關」。據這個人的說法,只要他們判斷和認定我作為外國人有干涉中國內政的「意圖」,就會抓我,不一定要有證據。就我與香港之間的緣份而言,這也算是命運吧,有無奈,暫時不得不離開觀望一段時間,有遺憾。我愛香港,愛那裏的市民、秩序、空氣,還有自由……












我希望不管中國的環境如何,我自己仍然可以用日文、中文、英文寫作。我希望自己做好可以做的事,也希望對中國的事情能夠保持繼續參與的姿態。此外,我還會堅持長跑。我的態度是沒有希望,也沒有絕望。我銘刻心中的一個告誡是:不該忘記的是絕望,不能放棄的是希望。因為放棄了就等於結束,只要還活着,就不能放棄。我認為狀態比結果重要。我特別認同薩義德(Edward Said)說的,保持一種業餘的狀態。就我個人來說,我能做的都努力做了,做不到的也就算了。為此,我付出了自己的精力、體力和憤怒。憤怒很重要,我經常憤怒,尤其這兩年在香港,我從未如此憤怒過。當然,更多的是對自己憤怒。我沒有做到的,只能怪自己。我願意度過憤怒的一生,對我來說,它是我活着的動力。