Cyclopes on My Doorstep, by Xu Zhangrun

Viral Alarm


The following essay by Xu Zhangrun, translated by Geremie R. Barmé, first appeared in SupChina on 17 December 2020. It is reprinted here with the kind permission of Jeremy Goldkorn.

— Geremie R. Barmé
Editor, China Heritage
22 December 2020


Xu Zhangrun 許章潤 Xǔ Zhāngrùn was a professor of law at Beijing’s prestigious Tsinghua University for over twenty years. He was expelled by the university in mid July this year. Stripped of his pension, his accreditation as an educator and thrown out of faculty housing, he moved to a small apartment that he and his wife maintained in the far west of Beijing. His crime was to have spoken up, loudly and frequently, to criticise Xi Jinping’s government.

Xu first came to international attention in July 2018, when he published ‘Imminent Fears, Immediate Hopes’ — a Beijing Jeremiad 我們當下的恐懼與期待, an unsparing critique of Xi Jinping’s first six years in office. Written in a passionate and eviscerating style of prose that combined the telegraphic gravitas of literary Chinese with modern ideas, ironic party-speak and wisecracking humor, the essay was a point by point warning about the direction that the country was taking, politically, economically, socially, as well as on the international stage.

Tsinghua University and the state security organs put intense pressure on Xu Zhangrun to recant. Not only did he refuse, he continued to publish scarifying anti-Xi broadsides. These included a magisterial three-part work that appeared in Hong Kong in late 2018. In it he analysed the reasons for the successes of China’s forty years of economic reform and openness before lambasting the Communist party-state that has set its sights on creating a global ‘Red Empire’. Faced with ongoing persecution, Xu declared ‘I will not submit; I will not be cowed’ 老子不服,老子不怕.

As the outbreak of the COVID-19 epidemic spread in China, Xu published ‘When Fury Overcomes Fear’, another fusillade aimed squarely at Xi Jinping and a cowed bureaucracy that allowed a local epidemic rage out of control, something that not only spawned a global pandemic but also proved to be a boon for surveillance regimes the world over.

In July, Xu was taken in by the police who claimed that they were investigating him for having solicited the services of prostitutes. Tsinghua availed itself of his weeklong detention to dismiss him from his job and strip him of what remained of his professional status. Like many outspoken individuals before him, Xu was now a ‘former person’.

Perhaps it is due to his international profile (Xu was appointed an Associate in Research at the Fairbank Center for Chinese Studies at Harvard University in August), or the fact that he is regarded as having acted alone, rather than ‘gathering others to create a disturbance’ 聚眾滋事 jù zhòng zī shì — a vaguely defined ‘crime’ used by the authorities to jail opponents — Xu Zhangrun remains free, even though, as we see below, he is subject to a regime of all-encompassing surveillance and banned from leaving Beijing, let alone the People’s Republic. The circumstances of this circumscribed ‘freedom’, something widely known among those in China who follow the ups and downs of political life in the country, are also an object lesson to others.

Despite this, Xu Zhangrun has been steadfast in his defiance and he has used what remaining latitude he enjoys to protest the persecution of the publisher Geng Xiaonan 耿瀟男, a long-time supporter and friend to the beleaguered community of independent Chinese thinkers who was detained by that authorities in early September. At the end of this essay, Xu notes obliquely that it was written in a furious mood after he had spent long hours at ‘The Walled Enclosure’, that is, the Haidian Detention Centre, where he had waiting for Geng Xiaonan’s lawyer to update him on the details of her circumstances.

The following translation, made with the author’s permission, is part of a China Heritage series titled ‘Viral Alarm’. For an account of Xu Zhangrun’s background, work and those who support him, see the Xu Zhangrun Archive, also in China Heritage.

Xu Zhangrun’s classics-inflected prose style is sardonic and it brims with literary references. Notes would only interfere with the flow of the text, although a number of minor explications have been added, marked by square brackets. Interested readers are encouraged to consult the Chinese text, also provided here.

Geremie R. Barmé
17 December 2020


Condemned for my writings I was also unjustly detained. They stripped me both of my job as a teacher and of my professional standing. Now, deprived of a livelihood all avenues of expression are also chocked off. Banned from scholastic activities, I am also barred from public life. I write these words sequestered at home, unemployed and unemployable. Friends are as few as the scattered stars at dusk and to go outside is in itself a challenge.

Despite all of this, my heart-mind wanders unfettered; my companions are the ancients in whose fellowship I still seek to commune through our shared dreams with the living.

—— What has led to this fateful circumstance, and who is to blame? Is it no more than the absurdist comeuppance of life itself, or, rather, is the true culprit this vile tyranny?


from Xu Zhangrun
‘The Past is the Historian’s Tyrant
— thoughts on my fifty-eighth birthday’
24 November 2020



Cyclopes on My Doorstep

Xu Zhangrun

translated by Geremie R. Barmé


At the height of the seasonal transition, just as the final flourish of summer was giving way to the bounty of autumn, dozens of spying eyes were installed in our community. The spies came in the form of CCTV cameras, a modern stand-in for the traditional form of embodied surveillance: undercover security agents. The new cameras were a cover for the real spies.

They came in all shapes and sizes, their surreptitious clairvoyance paired with deadly intent. Positioned like stylites on dedicated poles, the cameras survey all that lies within their realm and their perspective is deterred neither by the elements nor by the diurnal cycle. They glare down on our bustling world, capturing in their sweep all creatures great and small. Although the sentinels launched into action in sullen silence, theirs presence announced itself as loudly as a thunderclap.

In reality, everything that happens in our community is being followed by anonymous pairs of eyes behind the cyclops lenses. Now we are all aware that, even at a safe remove, they are snooping on it all: the quotidian grind of eating-drinking-shitting-pissing, as well as all of our comings and goings. They are also voyeurs, peeping-toms who observe the goings on between the sexes. The unfolding seasons, the passage of the days, the phases of the moon, not to mention the private agonies of separation — all are now subject to their inspection. Such all-weather surveillance sucks everything in, no matter how insignificant or irrelevant it may appear to be.

As the focus of singular attention my place enjoys a unique privilege. Just outside my door, which opens out onto a fan-shaped area, and within a stretch of land roughly the size of a fifty metre semi-circle, they’ve installed no less than nine CCTV cameras. Positioned at a variegated array of angles they peer out from different heights and at carefully calibrated distances. Some scan east-west, thereby honing in on my doorway while picking up the oblique angles of my humble abode. Two particularly hi-tech cameras come equipped with their own spotlights. At dusk these flicker on automatically and glower through the night unblinking. Anyone daring to visit me must endure their devoted scrutiny. And on they shine — on the brave few who would pay me a call, or on the drinking buddies who turn up unexpectedly, be they bringing news of unwarranted hope or appearing with sorrowful accounts of despair. Anyone who would beat a path to my place must do so in the dazzling glare of these relentless eyes.

CCTV has become a feature of China’s national landscape in recent years. The eyes are on us; surveillance cameras festoon the highways and byways of our cities. They are as multitudinous as the swarms of flies that were an unavoidable feature of public toilets, and they are as brash and undaunted as the ‘Ladies of Dongguan’ [who are famed for plying the oldest trade]. It goes without saying that CCTV cameras far outnumber that army of zombies who, when ‘on political heat’ in the spring months, annually converge on the Great Hall [of the People for the ‘Two Meetings’, convocations of the National People’s Congress and the National People’s Political Consultative Conference]. But the two bright-eyed, thug-like creatures at my door are new to me; they are a breed I hadn’t previously encountered. They lurk in wait for me, and for me alone.

When the workmen were installing the all-seeing eyes — lazily digging holes for the poles, laying cables and adjusting the lights — I overheard them joke about my particular cyclopes:

‘These little bastards are seriously hi-tech: they see what everyone’s up to and they can listen in as well; they even record what’s being said. You’d better watch out what you and the wife natter about in bed!’

Indeed, [this brings to mind a famous line by the Song poet Zhang Yan 張炎,]

‘they must take wary steps, hiding their embraces amidst the jostling blossoms. Exchanging soft whispers out of sight, the lovers are jealous even of the moon’s unwelcome light.’

Now, there’s no avoiding detection, even in the foliage; the slightest peep and they’ve got you. No-one can escape such assiduous attentiveness. Regardless and heedless, there will, however, always be those who will be unwilling to repress themselves or to take flight. Those couples will still throw caution to the wind and drink deep of the carnal cup. Cries of ribald ecstasy will resound as humping paramours pummel beds asunder.


Our small residential area lies beyond the Sixth Ring Road of Beijing. Its occupies a footprint shaped like a maple leaf, with farmlands lying just outside the enclosing wall. An out-of-the-way location far from everything, it is home to a few dozen families, forty or fifty people all told. My place is deep inside the compound near the uppermost tip of the maple leaf. It’s little better than a rustic dwelling, confining as it does this caged animal, a place barely fit for human habitation.

To get to my hovel from the main arterial road within the compound, first you veer left before taking a right-hand turn following which you wend a way along a path to reach my ramshackle door. The path peters out after about ten metres further on in a cul-de-sac, bringing to mind the old poetic line [from the Song-dynasty that mournfully touches on some of the famous sites of the West Lake in Hangzhou. One looks at this dead-end and thinks of]:

‘The teetering form casts a long shadow over Broken Bridge;
Dreams abruptly end at Solitary Hill.’

That’s why, setting out from my front door, first I have to take a left-hand turn then, after about ten metres, I go right for about another thirty before reaching the main road. From there I can catch sight of the farmlands and the city beyond. My line of vision is drawn to follow the rows of willows that line the waterways stretching out to mist-covered mountains in the distance.

The main road cuts a swathe through all of this, forming a T-junction. Nowadays for me to confront the newly populated topography requires more than workaday courage, for they have re-made the landscape and pock-marked it with hazards: those all-seeing lookouts. Still, I find myself to be equal to the confrontation: after that left-hand turn from my door, at about a distance of ten metres, I encounter the first sentinel, its obsidian lour boring into me. In fact, there’s two cameras up there that are set back to back, janus-like. They provide their cloaked masters an unhindered east-west view. They aren’t trained on the path itself, however, for their heads are twisted just so, allowing them to take in my doorway.

Having thus set out, I make sure to acknowledge their mute presence with a greeting appropriate to the time of day. Maybe I’ll add a ‘Fuck You!’ for good measure, before turning right. Then, some thirty metres there’s another ‘darkling monocle’. This too is a two-headed hydra; these conjoined brothers have stewardship over the north-south line of sight. They are the ones mentioned earlier that, in pursuance of their intrusive task, have the wherewithal to bring their own light to bear on the subject — me — employing the latest hi-tech thingamajigs to do so. The T-junction is a transportation nexus for the community and to the south-east, where the terrain rises up a little, they’ve implanted more snooping eyes. The two cameras affixed there, again back-to-back, cover the southeast and northwest vectors. So, within a fairly small radius they’ve actually installed four CCTV cameras ensuring thereby their panoptic purview.

Walking east along the left-hand arm of the T-junction takes me towards the heart of the maple shaped fan of the community. Along the way, I’ll encounter a CCTV camera every twenty or so metres. If, instead, I decide to strike out to the right, that is towards the west, I’ll soon reach a forked path where, yet again, cameras are trained to catch anyone approaching from either direction. There is also camera fixated on the southwest. Here, for once, they have chosen to overlook me, but as I said earlier, it still means there are nine CCTV cameras dedicated to keeping an eye on me.

Faced as I am with all of this, allow me to enumerate my feelings [by employing a few classical turns of phrase], for I’d describe what I face as being like

‘an ambush laid out in all ten directions,
one that extends a hundredfold embrace of solicitude, that in turn
offers a patronising concern expressed itself in a thousand little ways,
amounting in toto to a ten-thousand manifold of claustrophobic absorption.’

Or, to put it more plainly, the authorities are subjecting me to relentless and suffocating attention.

[As a result, as the poets would say:]

‘Now, paths swept clean, cautious silence reigns.
The days of carefree carousing and friendship all long gone,
now but sundry pleasures of the past.’

Yet, still I count myself fortunate; after all, surely this part and parcel of ‘la Comédie humaine’!


At first, I couldn’t help looking up at them whenever I set out on a morning or evening constitutional. Of course, they’d stare at me dumbly, in the surreptitious fashion that is their nature. Over time, however, I lost interest in them and, sometimes, I might forget about them altogether if I hadn’t left the house for a few days or even a fortnight. Then, when I did catch sight of them looming up in their perches, all steely and morose, I’d be taken aback. Then I’d remember — that’s right, it’s all part of their ‘Pacify Project’. Don’t be surprised! Don’t freak out — or so I’d try to reassure myself.

Their Pacify Project goes something like this: the state funds the installation of the surveillance system, it coordinates the rollout and pays for the lot using the hard-earned taxes of the citizenry. The profiteers that take it from there are hi-tech companies that design the eye-spy cameras. Added to that is a bevy of manufacturers who are involved at every point in the chain of production — that doesn’t include all the managers in charge of the teams of workers who actually do the job. By means of this seamless concatenation of plunder everyone gets to gouge their fill. People say that a typical procurement process like this means that each echelon of the commercial enterprises and party-state bureaucracies involved know just how to divvy up the tasks so they can be sure to score their particular share of the spoils. After all, hundreds of millions of cameras have been installed throughout the land, in the countryside and the city alike. Everyone who has a stake in the process takes their cut, public and private entities feeding off each other, top and bottom in cahoots, each level piling on, resulting in the present situation. What a bonanza!

But that’s just what I’ve heard. The real-life outcome of such machinations is that you often come across dozens of cameras jostling on the same single pole, nestling there like a flock of weary raptors. Now, everyone, everywhere is living year in year out ‘under foreign eyes’. [Note: In April 2019, Radio Free Asia reported that, by the year 2022, there would be two CCTV cameras for every man, woman and child in China.]

And it has come about that there are now all those spying eyes trained, cyclops-like, on my doorstep. Yet, strange as it may sound, I’d venture that I feel a measure of reassurance when I think about the despicable pairs of eyes that lurking behind the camera lenses — those gazing fixedly devoted to me. Sometimes, I imagine them to be weary blurry eyes clouded with fatigue; or bloodshot eyes exhausted by staring at a screen all day. Then there’s the eyes are brimming with frustration and resentment. Then, again, they might be pellucid optics, as youthful and alert as the young man or woman to which they belong. They might even think that they know exactly what their job entails, or they are proud that they their particular cog has found just the right place in the vast machinery of the state. Though, it’s also more than likely that theirs is a flickering gaze behind which hides a spirit ill-at-ease with itself. Then there are times that I think to myself: the eyes belong to a nondescript and numb observer, or they are dusky windows on a doughy, dull-witted soul.

Regardless of the kind of person ogling me through those arms-length lenses, they are part of a mechanism ticking over tirelessly and behind that skulks the scowl of undivided attention. Of that I am sure.

There’s a particularly poetic and meaningful line in A Luminous Republic, a novel by Andrés Barba:

‘Tiring of the same landscape, the vast earth began to move itself and, from that, rivers were born to flow’.

One day, surely, China’s myriad of camera lenses will also tire of the landscape it surveys. Or, conversely, those whom the CCTV cameras surveil may eventually tire of them and break forth in rebellion. What will then lie ahead will be the surging river and an irresistible tide.

The Season of the Great Cold
Twenty Third Day of the
Tenth Month of the Gengzi Year
7 December 2020 of the Gregorian Calendar

Written in haste at my home By the Old River,
having just returned after a long wait
outside The Walled Enclosure