Xu Zhangrun vs. Tsinghua University
Voices of Protest & Resistance (XVIII)
As we noted in ‘May Fourth at Ninety-nine’, published in China Heritage on 4 May 2018:
The Fourth of May marks China’s annual National Youth Day 五四青年節. It is ostensibly a time to celebrate the enthusiasm and independent spirit of youth. It commemorates the progressive, anti-imperialist student activists who, in 1919, led a national movement to protest against the unfair treatment of the Republic of China at the Versailles Peace Conference. Every year since the student-led protest movement of 1989, the weeks leading up to 4 May have been a time of heightened political anxiety.
What then is the abiding Spirit of May Fourth 五四精神? It is something that I have been hearing about, and discussed, for my whole adult life. I was given a well-meaning lecture on the subject on the train from Beijing to Shanghai on 4 May 1975, my twenty-first birthday. I had been a student in the People’s Republic for just a little over six months, but I was already learning that a revolutionary culture that celebrated youthful enthusiasm was overshadowed both by the past and by the Old Men and the Old Women of a Communist Party who saw themselves as the embodiment of China’s twentieth-century Zeitgeist. Biological attrition long since removed those wraiths from the historical stage, but in a myriad of ways — personal, intellectual, professional, emotional — I’ve spent the past forty-five years in the thrall of the contending spirits of May Fourth.
Below we offer two accounts related to the spirit of conscientious objection, outspoken protest and principled defiance. In the first we reconsider the ways that May Fourth, the iconic date-moment of 5.4 五四, has been remembered, reinvented and corralled over the past century. The second is a participant-observer’s account of an act of defiance and principled protest in the Chinese capital on 28 April 2019 when a group of Tsinghua alumni and scholars paid their respects at the Wang Guowei Commemorative Stele 王國維紀念碑 on the campus of Tsinghua University (for our earlier account of this event, see ‘The Two Scholars Who Haunt Tsinghua University’, China Heritage, 28 April, 2019; and for an alternative record of the events of 28 April, see Yan Huai 閻淮, ‘Rashomon & Growing Pains at Tsinghua University’, China Heritage, 10 May 2019).
For a few hours on that day, the Wang Stele became something of a miniature Tiananmen and, for a moment, the spirit of principled patriotic protest flickered. Perhaps it was also the most significant public commemoration of the Spirit of May Fourth, one untainted by Communist folderol. The quiet gathering was a solemn reminder of a forlorn past and a soulful appeal to the future.
The Fourth of May 1919 comes a third of the way through China’s modern story, which many historians and commentators date from the end of the Second Opium War and the beginning of Qing-dynasty reforms around 1860. The radicalism of the May Fourth Era (c.1915-1927) — part Republican, part Communist — reached something of apogee in 1969, a significant moment in the Cultural Revolution. The year 2019 is another watershed, a year replete with significant historical anniversaries and fifty years since the Ninth Communist Party Congress convened on April Fool’s Day half a century earlier had formally celebrated the end of the preceding half a century of iconoclasm.
As I have argued in our series Translatio Imperii Sinici, which forms the 2019 China Heritage Annual, China in recent decades has rejected a future premised on social, legal and political reforms. Instead, under the dolorous tutelage of the Communist Party, it has moved in the direction of what we call ‘Chinese Empire Redux’. For many, this is proving to be a disconcerting development; others see in it the modern expression of the ancient adage ‘There is no going without a return’ 無往不復.
As ever, I’m grateful to Reader #1 for correcting a slew of typographical errors.
— Geremie R. Barmé
Editor, China Heritage
4 May 2019
It should hardly be necessary to comment on the glaring irony offered by the contrast between the decades of youthful rebellion described in the first part of the following joint commemoration and the public acts of modest resistance engaged in by mature and elderly men and women of conscience at Tsinghua University on 28 April. We previously noted a comment circulated following the 28 April protest:
There’s grey-haired worthies aplenty,
But such a dearth of dark-haired youth!
The young people who were active during the May Fourth centenary — self-proclaimed Marxist Students at Peking University — were summarily silenced and dealt with by the authorities, as has been the case so often in the past. After all, the Communist Party is a vanguard proletarian organisation that has always been jealous of its preeminent role in any and all rebellious activity. Before 1949, various leftist groups learned this at their peril, just as independent-minded Red Guards discovered that there was no room for apostates in the church of Mao Zedong Thought. The Li Yizhe Guangzhou Big-Character Poster group discovered this old lesson anew, as did the Yellow River Former Red Guards of Hong Kong in the late 1970s and 1980s, along with the socialist thinker Wang Xizhe 王希哲 in the 1980s. Severe punishments were meted out to worker’s rights campaigners active during the nationwide 1989 protests and the nascent China & The Future Development Group of Marxist students were crushed with aplomb in the early 1990s.
Other idealists and hopefuls spanning the spectrum of what Lenin mocked as ‘left-infantalism’ — “左派”幼稚病 in Chinese — that is men and women who, over the decades, took Party parole seriously, have suffered a similar fate to the benighted individuals and groups listed above. It goes without saying that New Marxists tenured at China’s universities — aided and abetted by their fellow-travelling international academic aides-de-camp — have been far more adroit in deploying Marx in their praxis.
- May Fourth at Ninety-nine — Watching China Watching (XXII), China Heritage, 4 May 2018
- Ian Johnson, ‘A Specter Is Haunting Xi’s China: Mr. Democracy’, New York Review of Books Daily, 19 April 2019
- Human Rights Watch, ‘Lessons for the Learned — Twelve Ways to Resist’, China Heritage, 23 April 2019
- Editor, ‘The Two Scholars Who Haunt Tsinghua University’, China Heritage, 28 April, 2019 (updated on 1 May 2019)
- Xu Zhangrun and Guo Yuhua speak to Voice of America 美國之音 about ‘The Death of the Tsinghua Spirit’, YouTube, 29 April 2019
- Sebastian Veg, ‘May Fourth, 1919: The Making of Modern China’, The Diplomat, 1 May 2019
- Samuel Wade, ‘CCP Aggressively Guards Claim to May 4th Legacy’, China Digital Times, 3 May 2019
- David Bandurski, ‘100th anniversary of the May Fourth Movement: How China buried Mr Democracy’, Hong Kong Free Press, 4 May 2019
- Maura Cunningham, ‘May Fourth at 100: A Reading Round-Up’, The Wandering Life, 6 May 2019
- Yan Huai 閻淮, ‘Rashomon & Growing Pains at Tsinghua University’, China Heritage, 10 May 2019
- 王汎森, 探索五四歷史的兩條線索, Twenty-first Century, No.172 (April 2019)
- 陳平原, 危機時刻的閱讀、思考與表述—— 紀念五四運動一百周年, Twenty-first Century, No.172 (April 2019)
- 李欧梵, 五四百年中的中國現代文學，傳統與現代的弔詭, Twenty-first Century, No.172 (April 2019)
- 許紀霖×楊念群×歐陽哲生：歷史多稜鏡下的「五四」, Xinjing Bao, 3 May 2019
- 許紀霖, 五四：具有世界主義情懷的愛國運動, Sohu, 3 May 2019
May Fourth at 100
Note: Some of the following material first appeared in ‘May Fourth at Ninety-nine’, China Heritage, 4 May 2018.
On 4 May 1919, more than three thousand students from thirteen universities in Peking gathered in the area in front of Tiananmen Gate (at the time there was no square as such) to protest imperialist aggression, in particular the Versailles Peace Conference which proposed allowing the Japanese Empire to occupy former German imperial concessions in China. Together with attempts to ‘modernise’ Chinese culture through language and educational reform that had developed since 1917, this became known variously as the New Culture Movement 新文化運動 or the May Fourth Movement 五四運動. Cultural anxiety, intellectual ferment, economic stress, political fragmentation, continued imperial aggression combined with enthusiasm following the creation of the Soviet Union in the wake of the October Revolution of 1917, contributed to the founding and initial flourishing of the Chinese Communist Party in 1921.
Today, May Fourth as commemorated in the People’s Republic of China is entwined with the distorting history of the Communist Party.
A High Price
Li Ao 李敖
Unfortunately, after the May Fourth Movement, as both the Nationalists and the Communists adopted Soviet-style organizational methods and party discipline under the tutelage of the Soviet Union, the goal of ‘healthy individualism’ was abandoned for that of collectivism. This foreign import brought disaster on China, for it stifled intellectual liberation. Hu Shi recalled:
The ironfisted discipline introduced from the Soviet Union was excessively intolerant; it outlawed heterodox opinion. It was diametrically opposed to the liberalism we had advocated from the inception of the May Fourth Movement.
And so it was that both the Bolsheviks and the fascists embarked on the path of collectivization, diverting China from the individual and intellectual liberation of the New Culture Movement.
The theme of the New Culture Movement was ‘enlightenment’, intellectual and cultural self-renewal, and self-transformation. The call of the May Fourth Movement was for ‘national salvation’, its thrust was primarily political, and it led people to join parties for self-benefit. Renewal and transformation became something to be imposed on others. The feeling that national collapse was imminent sent the whole country into a frenzy. … …
After thirty years of activism [from 1919 to 1949], we won back Taiwan and lost Outer Mongolia (a territory forty-four times larger than Taiwan). We invited the Soviet wolves right into our homes and repaid the cruelty of the Japanese with kindness. Then, with the nation covered in wounds [from the war], the right-wing fascists in the Nationalist Party fled to Taiwan and the left-wing Bolsheviks of the Communist Party took over the mainland.
The Chinese have paid dearly for those decades of ‘saving the nation’. China may finally have stood up, but the Chinese have fallen down.
— 李敖, 「再論五四」, 《解放月報》, 1989:4
trans. Geremie Barmé with Linda Jaivin
New Ghosts, Old Dreams: Chinese Voices of Conscience
New York: Times Books, 1992, pp.344-345
- In regard to Li Ao’s own fall after 1989, see A Madman’s End 狂人之末日, China Heritage, 1 April 2018
A President’s Last Words
Ding Shisun 丁石孫 was the president of Peking University from 1984 to 1989. He was removed from his post following the Fourth of June repression of student-led national protests calling for greater media and academic freedom, political liberalisation and transparency. He had encouraged university students to take part in the demonstrations.
Here at Peking University we have a very strong sense of our historical responsibility. The university is the product of the 1898 Reform Movement, and we have a tradition, especially after Mr Cai Yuanpei’s incumbency as president. That was a period of immense change in China. Our ninety-year history — ninety-one years this year — has been inextricably tied up with the modern history of China.
We say we breathe with the rhythm of history. So our teachers and students have always felt it imperative to make our contribution to the creation of a new and strong china and to push forward. This is an intangible thing, an ambience if you will … .
— from We Are Writing History 他們正在寫歷史,
a film released in Taiwan and Hong Kong in 1990.
trans. by Geremie Barmé with Linda Jaivin
New Ghosts, Old Dreams, p.343
As noted in the above, and despite Ding Shisun’s best efforts, in reality since 1949, apart from a few important moments of glory during periods of relative ideological relaxation, the story of Peking University has been emblematic of the decades-long subjugation by the Communist Party of independent thought, academic freedom and student activism. Once at the vanguard of intellectual and cultural foment, today Peking University (PKU) is once more a laboratory for academic co-optation and self-debasement. Although both the university and its graduates trumpet the glories of PKU’s past, because of the fate of the liberal arts and humanities at this and China’s other tertiary educational institutions since the purges of the early 1950s, they are principally heir to a legacy of shame.
May Fourth Today
A Century in the Making
1919: The May Fourth protesters call for national salvation, science and democracy. This outpouring of patriotism coalesced with the progressive hopes of the New Culture Movement that had wrought change to education, language and thinking since 1917
For a study of the origins, contemporary significance and symbolic use and abuse of May Fourth, see Sebastian Veg, ‘May Fourth, 1919: The Making of Modern China’, The Diplomat, 1 May 2019
1929: Some New Culture / May Fourth firebrands hope to act as a ‘loyal opposition’ to the authoritarian Nationalist party-state that was gaining strength following the purge of Communists in 1927. For their part, left-leaning thinkers and activists, influenced both by local political developments and those in the Soviet Union, began to mirror the dogmatism and opportunism of their enemies
1939: The Communists champion the idea of ‘superseding the May Fourth Movement’ so as to establish speedily a new national culture. Renaming the holiday to commemorate the May Fourth ‘National Youth Day’, they call on young people to join the war effort and unite with the workers and peasants ‘in the May Fourth spirit’
1949: Close to victory in their civil war with the Nationalists, the Communists confirm Mao Zedong Thought as the nation’s ideology. (They also declare that the participation of the intellectuals in the workers’ movement has been the greatest achievement of the May Fourth Movement)
1959: The May Fourth Movement is celebrated as part of the Great Leap Forward
1969: The May Fourth spirit is completely negated by the Cultural Revolution, although it is still celebrated in name
1979: On the sixtieth anniversary of the May Fourth Movement China sets out from the same starting point as 1919, and the call for democracy and science goes out once more. There is also a renewed call for the ‘liberation of thought’, this time in opposition not to Confucianism but to the modern dogma of Maoism; it is aimed at validating the rule of Deng Xiaoping and his fellows
1989: The official government slogan announced to mark the seventieth anniversary of the movement is ‘Patriotism, Reform, Enterprise, Advancement’. There is no mention of democracy and science. Meanwhile, students and intellectuals demonstrated in Beijing and other cities for greater democracy, employing the original slogans of the May Fourth Movement. This was the last spontaneous mass student movement of this kind on the Mainland to date. The anti-foreign legacy of May Fourth, however, would now find expression in semi-spontaneous outbursts targeting foreign governments, nationals and business interests
3 May 1990: Party General Secretary Jiang Zemin celebrates May Fourth in a speech:
Inimical forces both inside and outside China have been plotting to use the strategy of peaceful evolution to overthrow our socialist system and thereby deprive the Chinese people of their right to determine the fate of their nation. They want to turn China into a vassal of the West. … The small minority of people who stirred up, planned, and orchestrated the turmoil and counterrevolutionary riot of 1989, as well as those rioters and louts who betrayed China to flee overseas, are not only the enemies of socialism, but allies of foreign aggressors. Their activities have harmed the Motherland and the People, revealing an anti patriotic stance and spirit. They don’t care a whit for national respect or even self-respect. What right do they have to talk about patriotism, democracy and human rights! …
There was a time during which we were lax in ideological work and education in our fine Party traditions. As a result some of our younger intellectuals fell prey to the influence of a Western bourgeois worldview and values, as well as national nihilism. We are confident that our younger comrades will be able to solve these problems through study and social practice, and by drawing lessons from their experience. (from 江澤民, 愛國主義和我國知識分子的使命——在首都青年紀念五四報告會上的講話, 3 May 1990)
1999: Hu Jintao speaks on behalf of Jiang Zemin:
Cold War thinking continues to exist, All-Under-Heaven is not at peace as hegemonism and power politics continue to advance globally. The Western powers still pursue a strategy of ‘westernization’ and promote divisions among socialist countries and developing nations. They will not give up. We are facing great opportunities and severe challenges. The creation of Socialism with Chinese Characteristics is a new enterprise many aspects of which we are not yet familiar and which we don’t understand. We must inherit from the past while advancing. …. The broad masses of Chinese young people must acquire an all-round perspective, a dialectical understanding and evolving appreciation of the ever-changing situation. Merely to focus on the positive and to overlook difficulties or to ignore them and to indulge in baseless optimism is not only incorrect but harmful. To hesitate in the face of difficulties, to allow one’s confidence to waver, to fail to act: all of these things are incorrect and harmful. (from 胡錦濤在五四運動八十週年紀念大會上的講話, 4 May 1999)
2009: the commemorative eulogy is presented by Li Changchun, Politburo member and Director of the Party’s Central Guidance Committee for the Building of Spiritual Civilisation 中央精神文明建设指导委员会主任:
From its inception the Party’s strategic thinking has been based on the belief that if we win over young people then we have won the future. To maintain a firm grasp over the youth movement of China, to guide young people to achieve healthy maturity, and thereby ensure that our Party will maintain its vitality and have worthy successors. Every stratum of the Party and the government must care passionately about the young, guide the young in a correct fashion, truly help the young and in particular help them resolve practical problems they encounter in their studies, their work, their finding employment and creative enterprises. They must think of every possible way to train the young to become talents, to work and to create, and to provide the conditions to make that possible. (from 李長春, 在紀念五四運動90週年大會上的講話, 4 May 2009)
2014, a buttoned-down celebration: On 4 May 2014, Xi Jinping, China’s party-state-army leader, pays an official visit to the campus of Peking University. It marks the ninety-fifth anniversary of the May Fourth Movement and the latest stage in the reassertion of Communist domination over China’s intellectual life. His comments are reported in the following way:
The values of young people determine the values that underpin the future of society itself. Youth is a time when your values are undergoing change and maturation and so it is crucial to control this phase in a person’s development. It’s a process that is akin to buttoning up your clothes: if you get the first buttonhole wrong then all your buttons will be in the wrong order. Life, as in buttoning up your clothes, is all about orderly progression. (from 習近平北大行勉勵學生「人生就像扣扣子」引熱議, 5 May 2014)
In his remarks Xi also re-affirmed that by 2018 Peking University would be an institution of international standing that was firmly grounded in China. The aim was not to create ‘the second Harvard or Cambridge’, but rather to make ‘Peking University the preeminent university’.
2018: On 2 May 2018, Xi returns to Peking University, this time in the company of Wang Huning, the Party’s leading ideologue and message-sculptor. They are first taken to see an exhibition of PKU’s achievements during the first five years of the Xi Jinping era, then on to glad hand senior academics, modern-day fellow travellers and useful idiots who joined in the burlesque — including the foreign luminaries Tu Wei-ming 杜維明 and Roger Ames 安樂哲 (see below) — all of which culminates in a lecture to a select student audience:
From the May Fourth era to the advent of the New Epoch of Socialism with Chinese Characteristics [under my stewardship], the Chinese Race has experienced a Great Leap from Standing Up, to Getting Rich and Becoming Powerful. This is epoch-making not only in terms of the history of Chinese race but in terms of human history itself. …
Every young person encounters unique circumstances and opportunities. I well remember the clarion slogan here at the campus of Peking University in 1981: ‘Unite to Revive China’. We must continue to chant that slogan today, a million hearts beating as one as we struggle to realise the China Dream. The broad masses of China’s youth are both pursuing the Dream while being the very people who will bring it to realisation. One needs passion and idealism to pursue the dream, while to realise it one needs to struggle and contribute. In their struggle China’s youth should commit all of their youthful enthusiasm and pursue the ideals of youth, while contributing that youthful, struggling self to construct the bridge leading to the Revival of the Chinese Nation, adding their own efforts as bricks and mortar to the enterprise of the Fatherland. …
We must tirelessly inculcate and advocate Core Socialist Values. In so doing we must encourage the broad masses of teachers and students to be devout believers in these Core Values, their enthusiastic proselytisers and their model exemplars. You must transmute your belief in Socialist China’s Path, Theory, System and Culture into the self-belief that you are one of the Best Universities in the World. Only if we are successful in training true builders of and successors to Chinese Socialism can our universities occupy a unique place in the world and have a voice to which people will pay attention. (from 習近平, 在北京大學師生座談會上的講話, 2 May 2018)
4 May 2018: An official Chinese media frenzy announces that Xi Jinping would give yet another important speech, this time at a gathering held in the Great Hall of the People in Beijing to commemorate the 200th anniversary of the birth of Karl Marx.
In light of the interdictions against academic independence and the policing of ‘western values’ in universities, it is difficult to know how to describe Xi Jinping’s emphasis on China’s search for ‘Truth’ 真: mendacity or self-deception? He is the architect of the most calculated attack on academic freedom since the 1978 debate surrounding the idea that ‘Practice is the Sole Criterion of Truth’ 實踐是檢驗真理的唯一標準 and he smugly told his PKU audience on 2 May 2018:
You must seek the Truth, True Scholarship, train True Competences. ‘If jade is not polished it cannot become a utensil; if a person does not study they cannot learn’. Knowledge is the bedrock of every person achieving their potential. During the phase of your studies that bedrock must be deep and firm. In studying you must seek out True Scholarship, seek The Truth, achieve awareness, appreciate realities and not be satisfied with fragmented information or intellectual fast food. (from 習近平, 在北京大學師生座談會上的講話, 2 May 2018)
It was appropriate that the official slogan marking the 120th anniversary of Peking University was one that encapsulated contemporary Party double-think: 守正創新、引領未來 ‘maintain orthodoxy while seeking creativity that leads the future’. The radical tradition of May Fourth was long ago cowed by the supporters of a new Chinese orthodoxy. The hyper-modern one-party state is dedicated to training future generations who would serve the state’s aspirations, while also becoming avid consumers. The centenary of the founding of the People’s Republic 2049 offers a vision of a sino-neo-liberalism: the End of History with Chinese Socialist Characteristics.
4 May 2019: In his unerring ‘signature style’, Xi Jinping cast a pall over the celebration of the centenary of the May Fourth Movement in the People’s Republic of China weeks before the actual day which, since 1949, has been gazetted as National Youth Day 青年節.
Only weeks before 4 May 2019, Xi Jinping set the tone for the highly symbolic centenary of May Fourth with a speech at a regular ‘study session’ of the Communist Party’s ruling Politburo:
We need to clarify the relationship between the Party and Chinese youth movements, strengthen political guidance for young people, guide them to voluntarily insist on the Party’s leadership, to listen to the Party and follow the Party.
As the party-state-army leader has previously noted, in the future ‘voluntary assistance’ can only be assured if China’s educators ‘grab children in the crib’ 從娃娃抓起. That is to say, indoctrination and ‘thought work’ must start as early as possible in an individual’s life, and it must continue unabated from kindergarten through to university. In his speech, Xi did at least make a mild concession to reality when he declared that:
We need to answer why young people should connect their individual aspirations to national rejuvenation and socialism with Chinese characteristics.
- For a detailed report on the Chairman’s ‘May Fourth guidance’ in 2019, see 習近平：加強對五四運動和五四精神的研究 激勵廣大青年為民族復興不懈奮鬥, Xinhua, 20 April 2019
— this entry is reproduced from the Editorial Introduction to
‘Lessons for the Learned — Twelve Ways to Resist’
China Heritage, 23 April 2019
In his official May Fourth oration, delivered in Beijing on 30 April 2019, Xi Jinping re-emphasised the preeminent role of the Communist Party in understanding and continuing the May Fourth Tradition. The Party alone can meld the Young of China and guide them into the future, as it has done in the past. And on it went, with Xi focussing on Party leadership, the long-term program of realising The China Dream, which among other things signifies the Party’s permanent ruling role in the country’s life and national aspirations, along with the anachronistic declaration that:
History reveals a profound lesson: that Patriotism has been commingled with the very lifeblood of the Chinese Nation since ancient times. China Patriotism can never be eliminated, damaged or obliterated. 歷史深刻表明，愛國主義自古以來就流淌在中華民族血脈之中，去不掉，打不破，滅不了…
- See 習近平, 在紀念五四運動100週年大會上的講話, Xinhua, 30 April 2019
- Also, see David Bandurski, 100th anniversary of the May Fourth Movement: How China buried ‘Mr Democracy’, Hong Kong Free Press, 4 May 2019
Counterfeit May Fourth and the Forgery of Young Souls
The May Fourth demonstrations of 1919 were organised at Peking University (PKU) then located in the heart of Beijing. During the Soviet-inspired reorganisation of tertiary educational institutions in the early 1950s, PKU was relocated and occupied the campus of Yenching University far to the north-west of the city. Both colleges were radically reshaped to create a Communist Party-dominated institution that lay claim to the name and reputation of both pre-1949 universities and thereupon set out to betray both. That is the official May Fourth Spirit of Peking University today.
At the 4 May 2019 PKU celebration, Hao Ping 郝平, the Party-President of the university gave a trade-mark ‘slogan-speech’ markedly different from the kinds of things said three decades earlier by his predecessor Ding Shisun, quoted earlier. Hao declared in the standard militant tone of a Party apparatchik:
Today, in commemorating May Fourth and championing the May Fourth Spirit, we must ensure that we meld that Spirit with our National Spirit and the Spirit of the New Epoch [of Xi Jinping]. Our Patriotic Fervour, Determination to Build a Strong Nation and Commitment to Repaying the Nation must be at one with the Great Enterprise of National Rejuvenation. It must find expression in [politicised] moral education and personal cultivation. In this process this May Fourth Spirit must be welded onto the Souls of Our Youth. Our university must continue to pursue without cease our work in Enhancing Academic Riches and Seeking the Truth.
- See 百年紀念 5分4秒短片「歌唱祖國」 北大：繼承五四 發揚愛國與民主, Ming Pao, 5 May 2019. My thanks to Sebastian Veg for bringing Hao Ping’s political opuscule to my attention.
An Account of the Resistance of
Graduates of Tsinghua University
On the Occasion of the 108th
Commemoration of the
Founding of the University
28 April 2019
Translated by Geremie R. Barmé
Lin Hai 林海 was in the Class of 1964 and following graduation taught and eventually became a professor at the Beijing Institute of Technology. He is now retired. Yan Huai 閻淮, whose family belongs to Communist Party gentry, was a cadre in the Party’s Central Organisation Department, a powerful body in charge of personnel deployment. A dissident writer for many years, his memoir Working in and Getting Out of the Central Organisation Department 進出中組部, published by Mingjing / Mirror Publishers in Hong Kong in 2017 with introductory essays by Li Rui and Yang Jisheng, offers detailed insights into the cloaked workings of Party power. For Yan’s account of the events of 28 April, see Yan Huai 閻淮, ‘Rashomon & Growing Pains at Tsinghua University’, China Heritage, 10 May 2019.— Ed.
The Academic World of China was shocked and outraged by the decision of Tsinghua University to suspend the pedagogical and research activities of Professor Xu Zhangrun of the university’s Faculty of Law for publishing views in support of the advancement of Chinese society. On 31 March , Yan Huai and Sun Nutao [a former Red Guard and author of the confessional work A Conscience Interrogated: the psychological odyssey of a Red Guard leader 《良知的拷問 —— 一個清華文革頭頭的心路歷程》 published in 2013], two old graduates of Tsinghua, published online their ‘Open Letter Calling on Tsinghua University to Reinstate Professor Xu Zhangrun Immediately’ [for the text of this letter in Chinese, and for an English translation, see: ‘Speaking Up for a Man Who Dared to Speak Out’, China Heritage, 1 April, 2019]. In no time at all, some one thousand Tsinghua alumni as well as graduates from other educational institutions had shown their support by signing the letter. Tsinghua’s administrators blithely ignored this appeal.
On 14 April, Yan Huai and Sun Nutao wrote and signed ‘An Open Letter to President Qiu Yong, Tsinghua University’ which they sent by express post to Qiu Yong along with the initial petition. Qiu had them returned unopened. As a result, we decided that, on the day of the annual commemoration of Tsinghua’s founding [28 April 2019], having first paid our respects to the Great Scholars of the past at the Wang Guowei Commemorative Stele [on the Tsinghua campus] and, in keeping with ‘A Spirit of Independence and a Mind Unfettered’ [as celebrated by Chen Yinque in the epitaph he wrote for the Wang Guowei stele in 1929], we would present our letters and the full list of signatories to the university authorities in person.
This proposal was widely discussed on the Tsinghua Alumni WeChat group and news of our plans soon spread. The university authorities were put on the back foot and resorted to an skulduggerous ruse to frustrate this plan by encircling the Wang Guowei Stele with a steel construction barrier. How could they possibly imagine that an ‘Independent Spirit and Unfettered Mind’ could be enclosed by such a crude manoeuvre? This behaviour merely served to incense our fellow graduates; they collectively decided to demonstrate their irate resistance publicly.
Yan Huai let it be known that, at 10:30am on the 28th, he would be paying his respects at the Wang Guowei Commemorative Stele after which he would be presenting the Open Letters. To avoid anything untoward, Yan made multiple copies of the letters and distributed these to other older Tsinghua graduates so that, in the event of his efforts being frustrated by unexpected circumstances, others could pick up the baton. [As a sign of his determination] Yan Huai shaved off his ‘natural curls’ and on the day he sported a ‘crew cut’. For his part, Lin Hai [the author of the present account] declared that he would join Yan. On the eve of the mission, they met up with old classmates who toasted them ceremoniously and bid them farewell.
[At that gathering,] Yan suggested some changes to a Poetic Couplet composed by Tang Chunlin so that it now read:
‘A Self-made Barrier Against Any Independent Spirit; So Thick That No Mind Remains Unfettered’ 自牆不吸獨立精神，厚得再無自由思想
[A satirical recasting of the Tsinghua University motto: 自強不息，厚德載物, the officially translation of which is ‘Self-Discipline and Social Commitment’].
‘That’s Tsinghua Today’.
Yan Huai also said that he hoped his former classmates would print out these words so they could be posted on the Blue Barrier that now cordoned off the Wang Stele.
Hearing of all of this, Pan Nengting — an old graduate of Peking University — sent over ten printed copies of the couplet. Originally, Lin Hai had planned to spray paint the words ‘Independent Spirit and Unfettered Mind’ in white, one-metre-high characters on the Blue Wall. He calculated that he could carry out this operation in approximately ten minutes and that the university authorities would have to expend considerable time and effort to eliminate the slogan, so much so that it would remain visible during the official university commemoration, something that would have a significant impact. However, on reflection he realised that such an act could lead to an unpleasant stand-off between the university and the older graduates, one that could prove extremely difficult for either side to resolve. Moreover, I [Lin Hai] reckoned that since Qiu Yong was about the same age as me [and therefore had similar life experiences in dealing with such matters] he was also sure to have some dirty tricks of his own up his sleeve. Therefore, it was best to leave him with a face-saving way out. So, instead Lin Hai inscribed the words ‘Independent Spirit and Unfettered Mind’ on two folding fans that could be displayed or concealed at will.
As 10:30am [of Sunday 28th April] approached, Lin Hai paced around near the Blue Wall and, out of the corner of his eye, caught sight of five fellows in black uniforms deployed to ensure that no one approached the barrier. Lin took a picture of the scene and, as he made to leave, the Men in Black suddenly seemed to take notice, at that same instant, however, it also appeared they decided not to confront him. Around this time, our old classmate Gao Yiling had been led off to Lecture Hall #1 for having stuck the Couplet [mentioned earlier] on the Blue Wall. On realising that something was amiss, Sun Yuxing and Sun Zheng headed over to the lecture theatre on a rescue mission. Soon they were all basking in the morning sunlight once more.
Yan Huai, Jiang Nanfeng, Lin Hai and Gao Xueyun went to the flower shop at the Hall for Contemplating the Waves [general services building] to purchase five bunches of flowers. As usual, Yan Huai paid for them. Jiang Nanfeng boasts the literary style ‘Old Donkey’ and the writer [that is, Lin Hai] asked him if he remembered ‘Donkey Braying at the Hall for Contemplating the Waves’ written by Gu Yaowen? It was quite a superlative composition. But on this occasion the Old Donkey was in no mood for such jibes and, turning on his heel, he went off to retrieve a camera and tripod from his car so he could make a record of the proceedings.
The floral tributes Yan Huai had bought consisted mostly of white and yellow blossoms, colors that could best express the subtle solemnity and thoughtfulness of the occasion [that is, white for morning, yellow for remembrance]. Hah — but then there was Yuan Renyong — the famed ‘Jia Baoyu of Tsinghua’ [Jia is the beguiling protagonist of the Qing-era novel Dream of the Red Chamber 紅樓夢] — with his thick eyebrows and expressive eyes. He’d gone off and bought two bunches of pulchritudinous red roses. When they were offered at the Grand Master’s Stele would his spirit-heart judder too?
10:30am: our classmates have gradually gathered at the Blue Wall enclosing the Wang Guowei Commemorative Stele:
- Lü Shuzu had the air of someone used to leading a marching group;
- Lou Huaning who always had that knowing smile had gone off who knows where;
- Zheng Kaimin was looking positively portly and displayed a military bearing;
- Zhao Zuozhu was taking it all very seriously, no mucking about there;
- Zhou Jiazong is our scholar with learned insights both into Wang Guowei and Chen Yinque;
- Zhu Qingqing is a psychologist who is adept in analysing things from a psychodynamic perspective — though, in this instance, even Zhu can’t offer a scientifically meaningful analysis of the crass stupidity of the Tsinghua authorities;
- Wang Songmei has a unique appreciation of the words ‘A Spirit of Independence and a Mind Unfettered’. Indeed, according to her, the Wang Stele was exactly mid point between the two warring Red Guard factions during the Cultural Revolution. As she’s observed: if only we had been taught to understand the dangers of blind obedience, political superstition and the follies of the personality cult we would have not become embroiled in the tragedy of the Cultural Revolution in the first place;
- Cui Yuanhao is a lover of Peking Opera;
- Luo Xiaobo is a Yoga Guru;
- Zhang Yingxia is an Internet star famous for posting as ‘Yin Tan’;
- Liu Guangman is as enthusiastic and fiery as ever;
- Liu Shougui is still as comely as ever, unassuming and refined;
- Guo Shaohua has lost none of that quick-witted humor;
- Fang Lisha — nickname ‘Bubbles Fang’ — is as clever and kind-hearted as I can recall;
- Zhong Yongsheng, Sun Mao, Wang Enqing, Liu Xinhua, Guo Yuhua, Li Anguo, Feng Zhaolong were also there bearing flowers or carrying copies of that satirical Couplet.
The Men in Black had disappeared only to be replaced by four or five Student Volunteers — fresh-faced youths with what appeared to be positively sunny dispositions. You couldn’t help but warm to such young folk. They turned out to be very respectful and soon they were chatting freely with our group of oldies.
Today, there was an opening in the Blue Wall and it was just wide enough for one person. Maybe the workers had been using it to gain access to the site, or perhaps the authorities had been instructed by the Higher Ups to create a ‘safe passage’ so that things didn’t get too out of hand. After all, they had been stupid enough to barricade the Wang Stele in the first place and now, if the situation escalated any further, it could potentially end up being an international embarrassment. If that were to happen even the fast-talking sophistry of Hu Angang [a widely derided but officially lauded Tsinghua zealot-academic] couldn’t get them out of the hole that they’d dug themselves.
Lin Hai now approached the breach in the Blue Wall, flowers in hand. It’s quite possible that the Volunteers had never come across an Old Fella quite like him before and they couldn’t decide if they should be blocking his progress or giving him a hand so that he didn’t topple over. Confusion reigned. At this juncture, Yan Huai called Lin Hai back to where he was standing so that everyone could line up in an orderly fashion. Then, one by one, they squeezed through the narrow opening, approached the Master’s Stele, made a respectful bow and left their floral tributes.
That’s when Yan Huai and Lin Hai flourished the two fans on which were written the words ‘A Spirit of Independence’ and ‘A Mind Unfettered’. They were a picture of stern resolution.
Today, Professor Xu Zhangrun was also present and everyone went over to say hello and inquire about his health — Professor Xu had only recently requested leave from Tsinghua to seek medical treatment in Japan, but when he arrived at Beijing Airport his departure had been blocked by Two Toughs. It was evident that the authorities were determined to frustrate even this act of common human decency. The professor expressed his gratitude for the support of the group of Tsinghua alumni and happily agreed to have his picture taken with everyone. Many young students and other alumni also took the opportunity to take pictures of this historical moment or made short videos.
Thereafter, Yan Huai led the gathering in a recitation of the Epitaph that Master Chen Yinque had written for the Wang Guowei Stele [and carved on its verso side], after which we all stayed on chatting in small groups. A youngster with a mini digital camera interviewed Professor Xu, who said:
My understanding of today’s events is that old graduates of Tsinghua University have come to pay their respects to Masters Wang and Chen as an act of reverence for our intellectual forefathers and as a way of showing support for the continuing importance of having ‘A Spirit of Independence and a Mind Unfettered’. It is a message that has been obstructed by various things for far too long. It is exactly what China needs today more than ever.
The same student then asked Professor Guo Yuhua of the Sociology Department about it. She replied:
We have come here today as a demonstration of our belief that it is important to reacquaint ourselves with the essence of the ‘Tsinghua Spirit’ and to express our longing for it. This is because, in my opinion, the Tsinghua Spirit now faces extinction. I’m convinced that, at a time like this, the concept of having ‘A Spirit of Independence and a Mind Unfettered’, which was championed by our forebears, should not be allowed to disappear. It is up to us to keep it alive for the future.
In the distance you could see about a dozen dubious-looking characters who were busying themselves taking photographs, recording video material and employing facial recognition techniques. How pathetic that young people like that have been reduced to engaging in such despicable acts so as to eke out a living.
Tang Jie, the secretary of the Tsinghua Alumni Association turned up at the Blue Wall looking for Yan Huai. Thereupon, Tang invited Yan and Lin Hai to the office of the Association. Once everyone had been seated and after tea had duly been offered. it was just time for the pre-arranged appointment with a representative of the university. After waiting around for over ten minutes a fellow by the name of Shi Zongkai made an appearance. He introduced himself as the deputy director of university administration. Addressing Yan Huai he said:
I believe you have a matter that you wish to report to us…
Yan immediately shot back:
We’re not here to report anything to you. We asked you to come here. If we wanted to ‘report something’ we’d have gone to a government petition office, not to you.
Shi Zongkai then made it quite clear that he would be attentive to any complaint that we had. (After the event, we learned via BaiDu that Shi Zongkai is the Deputy Party Secretary of Tsinghua’s [governing] Communist Party Committee, an indication that the school was treating this meeting with a measure of seriousness.)
First of all, Yan Huai expressed our strenuous objections to the totally unjust fashion in which Professor Xu Zhangrun had been treated by the university authorities. He then went on to confront the issue of how President Qiu Yong had pointedly refused to accept our letter, which we had sent to him by registered mail. Shi Zongkai did his best to come up with a series of excuses to explain away Qiu’s behaviour. But Yan Huai had been a secretary in a party-state office for many years and was more than familiar with standard practice related to the dispatching and receipt of official correspondence. Shi realised that he was completely outclassed because of Yan’s insider knowledge; the defence he was offering was nothing less than cringe-worthy. Yan Huai also took the opportunity of the encounter to point out that the Tsinghua Alumni Association had closed down the social media platforms of the classes of 63 and 64 used by graduates on orders from on high, although, at the time, they claimed that it was because the server was inoperable. Subsequently, Lian Guoyi gifted 50,000 yuan to the Association to pay for a new server but that too was shut down after only a month.
Then Yan Huai turned his attention to the annual university commemoration and the decision to ban access to the Wang Guowei Stele on the grounds that essential construction work was being undertaken there. We love our alma mater, Yan Huai told Shi, but we were both hurt and offended that the school chose to resort to such lame and underhand tactics. To this Lin Hai added that [long ago] Chairman Mao [himself warned against] ‘scaring the fish so they hide in the depths or threatening birds so they flee deep into the woods’ [that is, making a delicate situation worse], for to do so amounted to treating the People like the enemy. This was, he said, the classic behaviour of an autocracy struggling to maintain power in the face of impending doom.
Of course, in his heart Shi Zongkai was entirely aware of the injustice of the situation, as well as the rights and wrongs of what had transpired. But this is what he does for a living and therefore was in no position to say anything. Lin Hai offered some solace by commenting that he appreciated the difficulties faced by bureaucrats at every level and, gradually, the exchange became somewhat more relaxed. In due course, the waiter at the Association brought a pen so that Yan Huai could address an envelope in which he now placed printed copies of both Open Letters and the list of signatories. We then took a series of photographs as our record of what had transpired, following which the envelope was solemnly presented to Shi Zongkai. For his part Shi promised that the letters would be handed to President Qiu in person and he even expressed a hope that he might be able to get a copy of Yan Huai’s memoir Working in and Getting Out of the Central Organisation Department [a controversial book published in Hong Kong in 2017]. Yan agreed on the spot and said that he’d fetch a copy from his car in a moment. … [Here follows a rather nebulous political discussion between Lin Hai and Tang Jie not germane to the 4.28 Protest. Interested readers should consult the original Chinese text, a PDF version of which is attached below.]
It was getting late and the service personnel brought us lunch boxes. After eating Shi Zongkai accompanied Yan Huai to his car and was presented with three copies of Working in and Getting Out of the Central Organisation Ministry, one of which was earmarked for President Qiu Yong.
Throughout all of this photographs and short videos were constantly being posted to Tsinghua graduate chat groups, members of which voiced wide-spread support for what was tantamount to act of resistance in the name of the ‘Independent Spirit and Unfettered Mind’. The groups also posted high-definition pictures of professors Xu and Guo standing together at the site. Some of these also circulated on the international Internet, though we were surprised to learn that there were overseas Tsinghua graduates who were convinced that they were somehow doctored. One alumnus from the Thermal Energy Class of 2010 by the name of Du Yujing who is now resident in the United States also posted the following comment: ‘I really feel like giving them [the protesters] a hard slap in the face’.
In China itself a dark current was also swelling, for some people were warned that what in effect had happened was not greater communication and compromise, for it served only to add to further interference and repression. We can only wait and see what unfolds in the society in the future.
(This document has been read and approved by Yan Huai.)
- 林海 Lin Hai, 《清華校慶老校友們抗爭記》(4.28: An Account of the Resistance), 28 April 2019, privately circulated PDF