From jail, Xu Zhiyong asks ‘Whither China?’

Xi Jinping’s Empire of Tedium

Appendix LVI



‘Where to from here?’ 向何處去, ‘Exploring every avenue’ 上下求索, ‘What’s to be done? 怎麼辦, ‘What is to be avoided and what is to be followed?’ 何去何從, ‘Who holds fate in their hands?’ 誰主沉浮 — these ancient questions are asked with ever greater urgency in China today.

‘Whither China?’中國向何處去?, a letter of appeal composed by Xu Zhiyong 許志永, one of China’s most prominent human rights lawyers who had been sentenced to fourteen years in prison in April 2023, was an interrogation aimed at China’s party-state and a limpid reminder to people throughout the People’s Republic of the high stakes begged by that question.

Long before Xi Jinping’s rise to power in late 2012, we began to record China’s ‘seeds of fire’ 火種, the voices of conscience and resistance that spoke out against one-party rule, arbitrary legal processes, social injustices and the regime of censorship that bedevilled writers, thinkers, academics and students. In recent years, China Heritage has also featured the work of outspoken figures such as Xu Zhangrun 許章潤 and Chen Qiushi 陳秋實.

With the support of Yaxue Cao of China Change, we offer our readers Xu Zhiyong’s unflinching analysis of China’s ongoing socio-political crisis and his answer to the eternal question ‘where to from here?’ Or, as he puts it:

Whither China? Market economy or planned economy? Democracy and freedom, or authoritarian dictatorship? America or North Korea? A broad avenue or a cliff? Flourish along with the tide of history or die trying to hold it back?



This is Appendix LVI in the series Xi Jinping’s Empire of Tedium.

— Geremie R. Barmé
Editor, China Heritage
8 December 2023


Material Related to Xu Zhiyong:

Material in Xi Jinping’s Empire of Tedium related to the protests from October to December 2022:

It Is What It is

All those past hopes, scudding by like clouds and mist
All the scenes that no one can ever see clearly
Can’t let go, never feel fulfilled

過往的執念 過往如雲煙
太多的風景 沒人全看清
放不下 怎圓滿

If life is just one Big Dream
What can be done?

如果生命 只是大夢一場

Sure, I see the blossoming flowers
Hear the birdsong
See the busy crowds
The clouds overhead
I hear the bubbling streams and
See people out there slowly making their way

我看到花兒在綻放 我聽到鳥兒在歌唱
我看到人們匆匆忙忙 我看到雲朵在天上
我聽到小河在流淌 我看到人們漫步在路上

from the song ‘Outsize Dreams’


qíu, seek, yearn for, in the hand of Huang Tingjian (黃庭堅, 1045-1105 CE)


Whither China? — Xu Zhiyong’s Letter of Appeal

Translated by China Change

30 November 2023


In August, while waiting for appeal, Dr. Xu Zhiyong wrote the following statement (Chinese original), not so much to the court as to his compatriots. In June, he and Ding Jiaxi were sentenced to 14 years and 12 years in prison respectively on subversion charges, ostensibly for an informal two-day gathering in Xiamen in December 2019. The real reason of course is clear: under Xi Jinping, the suppression of dissent has become harsher than ever, and the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) simply wants to throw dissidents in prison, with longer sentences for civil society leaders such as Xu and Ding. On November 24, both Xu and Ding’s sentences were upheld by a higher court in Shandong. Deprived of a pen and paper since his detention in February 2020, Xu Zhiyong managed to find a pen from an inmate and wrote the following statement on the back of another inmate’s court verdict.

— The Editors of China Change

Xu Zhiyong (left) and Ding Jiaxi.

You put us on trial, but it is you who will be tried and judged by the people. The real appeal I make here is not to the Shandong High Court, a minion of the regime, but to the people and to history. In the wake of the pandemic, as the world economy flourishes, why is China sliding downward? After a short-lived rebound, consumption has shrunk, investment has been weak, exports have fallen off, people have had trouble finding work, and the economy has entered an overall state of decline. What is the root cause of all this? What is the way out?

The root cause lies in a decade of regression, and along with it, the collapse of national confidence.

Our economic woes are fundamentally a political issue.

The state grows stronger while the people become weaker. State-owned enterprises have been expanded and strengthened, while private enterprises have been squeezed and depressed. Privately run tech companies have been taken over by the state, and outstanding private entrepreneurs have been forced into retirement. State capital dominates, competing with the people for profits everywhere. Profitable industries, including natural resources, energy, communications, electricity, and even tourism and transportation, are all run by state-owned enterprises (SOEs). They talk about fair competition, but the very ideology of the Communist Party is to eliminate private ownership. They talk about equal standing, but when there is no democracy, how can there be equal footing between the government and the people?

The market is distorted. When the state provides exorbitant subsidies for electric vehicles, aggressively promotes 5G telecommunications, makes decisions for banks, and manipulates the stock market. When the state exercises power arbitrarily, what space is there for the market to play a decisive role?

The vitality of the people is depleted. Because of the state monopoly on land ownership, real estate prices are inflated, turning people into slaves to their mortgages. The state monopoly on petroleum likewise results in unnaturally high prices of gas, making people slaves to their vehicles. When a trucker spends 1,000 yuan a day on gas and another 1,000 yuan on highway tolls, the cost of logistics is among the highest in the world. From the SOEs at the top to the local government financing vehicles below, the state monopolizes all the key sectors that feed on the blood of the people. Saddled in debt, what’s left for the people to consume?

Adverse effects of artificial stimulus. When the financial crisis hit in 2008, the 4 trillion yuan stimulus package was the right thing to do. But from then onward, China should have respected the market, opened up the society, and slowed down growth to a sustainable rate to become a developed country. But economic growth and the pursuit of GDP has been the foundation of legitimacy for the CCP’s rule. Each year, far more than 4 trillion yuan have been poured into building infrastructure such as high-speed trains, highways, or sea bridges, regardless of whether they will actually be used or turn a profit. After 15 years of accelerated growth, China is hollowed out, banks are in the red, and the debt is being transferred to the people.

The three years of “zero-Covid.” On the New Year’s Day of 2020, CCTV condemned rumors of a contagious epidemic no less than eight times, while the totalitarian regime did its utmost to suppress information about the Wuhan pneumonia that soon spread to the entire world. In the three years that followed, the state gave orders to lock down cities, villages, and the whole country.  Even giving the radical initial response the benefit of the doubt, why was China locked down for three years when, six months into the pandemic, the death rate from the pandemic proved lower than feared and the world economy started picking up? Again, a catastrophe of dictatorship. As tens of thousands of businesses have closed and millions of people lost jobs, the country found itself in a full-blown crisis. Perhaps Covid-19 is destined to be the last nail in the coffin of the communist regime.

In short, without checks and balances, the power does whatever it pleases. Should Hitler have lived 40 years, his Reich would have collapsed too, for it is the inevitable fate of any dictatorship.

The fundamental problem China faces is the direction of the country.

China rescued itself from the abyss of planned economics by reform and opening up, a turn toward modern civilization, private property, and free market, resulting in 30 years of growth and prosperity. But over the past ten years, China has again held high the banner of Marxism and reversed the progresses it had made, taking on an ever greater North Korea-esque flavor. The citizenry is at a loss and has no confidence in the future.

Whither China? Market economy or planned economy? Democracy and freedom, or authoritarian dictatorship? America or North Korea? A broad avenue or a cliff? Flourish along with the tide of history or die trying to hold it back?

A clear future beckons: It is one in which China has a true democracy with multiple parties competing for power, votes for every eligible voter, an independent judiciary, and free speech, where a real market economy determines the allocation of resources with the underlying foundation of private property ownership. China will not be an exception to the universal tides of human civilization.

Like any other country, China has its own characteristics. While the U.S. has a president, Japan an emperor, or India a prime minister, all democracies share four principles: A democracy is either real or fake, not defined by this or that -ism. In a real democracy, parties compete, and the people choose with votes. A “democracy” can’t be real when there is only one candidate, and that candidate receives 100% of the votes. What we oppose is not the so-called “socialist democracy,” but fake democracy. What we pursue is not the so-called “capitalist democracy,” but real democracy.

A modern civilization of the Chinese nation will not be a combination of the worst of the West and the worst of China, namely, Marxism and dynastic politics, but the fusion of democracy and science with the ancient Chinese virtues of benevolence, righteousness, propriety, and wisdom — the best of the West and the East. In a free and democratic China that has left dictatorship behind, 1.4 billion Chinese will be revitalized to create the most advanced technology, the most prosperous economy, and the most splendid culture. A beautiful China will lead humanity into a new epoch.

Their direction used to be correct when they started privatizing SOEs, took steps for the party to back out of the market, and gradually allowed grassroots elections. People felt inspired, hopeful, and confident about the country’s prospects.

Two decades ago, I made sincere recommendations; ten years ago, I also cried out for change. But we’ve all witnessed how China has veered further and further in the wrong direction. I was sentenced to four years in prison for calling upon Chinese to be real citizens who shoulder their civic responsibilities, and one of the charges against me was calling on people to compete in the elections of people’s representatives. Buds of democracy have been snipped, and space for reform has been blocked up. Xi Jinping  is destined to be the last generation of this totalitarian reign, no one can stop him from hurtling off the cliff.

The economy is withering due to a series of wrong decisions. The treasury has bled out, the Xiong’an New District (雄安新区) is a half-baked vanity project, the BRI is not what was envisioned, and the three-year “zero-Covid” was pure tyranny. At its wits’ end in the face of these challenges, the Party presses on with failed policies, drinking poison to quench its thirst.

Political regression on full display. At the village level, democracy has fallen back to one-person-decides-all. Separation of Party and government has been scrapped. At the top, the Party’s collective rule has given way to one-man’s rule. With the regression of political reform, tyranny has expanded, the stability maintenance apparatus inflated, turning into a mountain crushing the country under its weight.

Cultural life is dying. A blossoming culture is not defined by digging up ancient tombs or refurbishing historical sites, but by creating an outstanding culture to be shared by all humanity. The lifeline for such a culture is freedom. But freedom is the number one enemy of the Communist Party.  This European specter of communism has [in the past] taken upon itself to destroy Chinese culture, demolishing Emperor Yan’s Mausoleum and digging up the grave of Confucius. Today, film, TV, art, and cultural life in general are dying by a thousand cuts of omnipresent censorship.

Society is suffocating. Fear of elections is a sign of insecurity. As the end draws closer, there are more taboos. The nation is losing vitality and turning into a land of zombies as everyone, from actors and internet influencers to writers and singers, is afraid of being shut out.

Embracing Marxism. It is a specter that has no place to haunt in Europe, but like a virulent disease, it spread to China via Soviet Russia, bringing with it unprecedented disasters that killed more than 30 million in famine and obliterated Chinese culture during the Cultural Revolution in the 20th century. It continues today to bring slavery, hunger, and suffering to the Chinese people. Is it a show of force to the rest of humanity to uphold such an absurd theory, a total failure?

We survived the Cultural Revolution, but the party seems nostalgic to go back to those days. What a tragedy for the Chinese nation!

Altering the constitution.  What virtue and competence does Xi Jinping have to thrust himself forward for lifetime rule? When the fate of the country and its people is tied to one man, it would be worrisome even if he were a sage, let alone when he’s anything but. With the change of helm every ten years, people have been able to hold onto some hope even under the one-party rule, now even that faint hopefulness is diminished. In the last ten years we have witnessed a negation of what has been gained. As a result, resentment has risen throughout society. The country is in peril as a dictator leads China down the wrong path.

China needs a revolution.

Revolution will inevitably break out. Only revolution will dismantle dictatorship; only revolution will save China; only revolution will bring about democracy and freedom and, along with it, fairness and justice. Only revolution will instill a sense of dignity in people; and only revolution will bring the rebirth of the Chinese nation. Only without the Communist Party will there be a new China.

I’m not proposing a violent revolution. The people have no arms, nor would violence yield the fruit of freedom. The communist regimes of the USSR and Eastern European collapsed as the result of peaceful civic revolution without violence.

In August 1991, the reactionary forces of the communist USSR staged a coup d’état, with soldiers deployed on the streets of Moscow. However, as the ruling clique had no strongman, the military idled and looked on. Three days later, the Communist Party fell, and the democratic faction won. When the communist regime reaches its final moment, the only role for the military is to take no action.

Anger is the fuel of revolution. But the color of the flames will not be hatred but love. The revolution aims at exorcizing Marxism and Leninism, redeeming every Chinese, not hating or attacking any individual, not destroying properties, and not giving reasons for brutal crackdown. Love is a more powerful force than hate.

China will not be divided. The interior provinces will be highly integrated in recognition of a national identity. But deep-seated resentment has built up in peripheral regions. Our idea of a political and social transformation is clear and firm: liberty is the direction with democratic autonomy for each region; justice must be defended without any violence; and we will negotiate the future peacefully, using love to heal the wounds.

Chaos will not befall China. When the USSR changed politically, the society and the economy was hardly prepared for the upheaval. China, on the other hand, has had 40 years of experience with market economics as well as a gradually maturing force aspiring for freedom and democracy. Large-scale protests will erupt and drive out the Communist Party, and within months after that, China will hold a referendum to amend the constitution and hold elections.

The 1989 Tiananmen democracy movement failed, largely because the ruling elite had a charismatic strongman followed by most of the military, while the democracy camp had no apparent leader and lacked direction and rhythm. Also, the international community still held high hope for reform and opening up in China. Domestically, the social conditions for change were not ripe, and ordinary people could still enjoy the dividends of reform.

Today, the ruling class has no charismatic strongman, and when history’s turning point comes, the military will hesitate to follow him. That will be enough. The democratic camp has already had a mature leadership team, a clear direction, and a viable path. The international community has seen through the CCP, and a new cold war has begun. With China plagued by unemployment, poverty, despair, and widespread discontent, the social conditions for change are in place.

Compatriots, day is about to break on the eastern horizon, the volcanoes are seething, lava flows are converging. The Chinese nation must no longer lie dying in stillness; it shall erupt from the silence.

The most honorable quality is courage. The courage to speak the truth, the courage to defend freedom, the courage of not fearing prison, and the courage to come out on the streets.

We owe our gratitude to Peng Lifa (彭立发), the lone warrior who stood out and lit up a beam of bright light at the darkest moment of the night on Sitong Bridge. He’s not alone. Tens of thousands of people have been awakened. He is not just one man.

We owe our gratitude to the youth. Thirty-three years after the Tiananmen Movement, the country has heard your cries again. The blank papers you held up will become a tide of change. I thank you, the girl who stood in front of the student canteen with a sign at Peking University. As an alumnus of that school, I’m proud of you. You are the hope of our nation’s future. May your spirit return, Peking University!

We owe our gratitude to the forbearers of the democracy movement. From the Democracy Wall in 1979, to Tiananmen Square in 1989, to members of the Democratic Party in 1998. Generation after generation, courageous people cried out for democracy and freedom. More courage was needed to do what they did. Wei Jingsheng (魏京生), Qin Yongmin (秦永敏), Liu Xianbin (刘贤斌) … altogether, their prison terms total a thousand years. How much a price Chinese must pay for the nation’s rebirth? I’m honored to join your ranks.

We owe our gratitude to the Christians. For decades, they’ve quietly spread the message of love of Jesus Christ in China, a land of suffering, injustice, and angst. I witnessed how members of Beijing Shouwang Church (守望教会) prayed in the driving snow at the gate of Haidian Park after their church was shut down. I believe that the God of Heaven that the Chinese worship and Jehovah are the one and only God of humanity.

We owe our gratitude to the Falun Gong practitioners. In December 2021, because of his hunger strike, Mr. Liu Jinguo (刘金果) in the cell next to mine was shackled to a bed plank for a month. For over twenty years, adherents of Falun Gong have suffered unspeakable torture that weighs heavily in the annals of the Chinese nation.

We owe our gratitude to all who have struggled for freedom, democracy, justice, and dignity. Under the heel of dictatorship, while most people endure humiliation in silence, tens of thousands of brave Chinese have stood up and said no to power. They have been censored, detained, or imprisoned. They are the backbone of our people.

We owe our gratitude to citizens who have accompanied me on our journey over the last twenty years. They have the courage to fight and the wisdom to build, all for a beautiful China that’s free, just, and loving. There will be a day when each and every Chinese is a real citizen, enjoying free speech, the right to elections, and the rest of the universal freedoms. Our lifelong dream and struggle is for a China that truly belongs to the people.

Compatriots, 112 years ago, the 1911 Revolution overthrew the Qing Dynasty and established the Republic of China, the first republic in Asia. Unfortunately, following decades of strife, both at home and abroad, the ROC was defeated, and dictatorship came back in force. Another 70 years have passed during which the world’s geopolitics have seen dramatic shifts. Democracy has been on the march while dictatorships are coming to an end. Even Africa has had general elections for years, but my country is still under one-party rule and one-man dictatorship. This is the worst disgrace of the Chinese nation and people.

The Chinese have lived through too much fear and absurdity.

During the Great Leap Forward, we were made to throw pans and woks into furnaces to make steel and iron, leaving farmland barren. Thirty million died of hunger during three years of good weather, but in history books, the famine was summed up as “three years of natural disasters.” Then we were given the Cultural Revolution, when cultural relics were destroyed, and the whole country was whipped into a frenzy, dancing the loyalty dance, raising “loyalty pigs,” and asking for orders from Chairman Mao in the mornings and making reports to Chairman Mao in the evenings.

In the not-too-distant past, “guerrillas hunting birth-control violators” roamed the countryside. A late-term pregnant woman was dragged to a county hospital where her baby was given an injection to the head, and when born alive, the baby was thrown into a cauldron of boiling water. Over the span of 40 years, tens of thousands of heartbroken Chinese mothers wailed, watching their babies murdered barbarically.

When the government campaigned to flatten graves to create more farmland, ancestral graves were bulldozed, the dead were dug up, cremated, and placed into thousands of little grid cells with no dignity whatsoever.

When they campaigned for environmental protection, they took people’s coal stoves by force on the coldest days of winter. Thousands of businesses were forced to shut down, losing everything they had worked so hard to build up, without any way to seek legal recourse.

When the pandemic hit, doctors were ordered to shut up, and CCTV “quashed rumors.” Another order from above locked down cities, villages, and the entire country, shattering everything — work, life, dreams.

Yet another order suddenly lifted lockdowns with no prior preparation. Millions upon millions found themselves bereft of basic medication, and long lines queued in funeral houses.

When a plane crashed, the public was not allowed to know the truth or reflect on it. When a flood struck, the public was denied information about the real death toll. When donating to earthquake relief efforts, people could only give money to government-run organizations, including the Red Cross, and couldn’t verify the use of their donations. Discussing national affairs is a punishable crime. Everyone is required to sing the praises of the emperor’s new clothes, despite knowing that he has none. Having no other recourse, victims of injustice go to Beijing to petition their cases, evading surveillance by shutting off their phones and avoid taking trains like guerrilla fighters, only to be apprehended at the gate of the National Public Complaints and Proposals Administration.

Human beings are political animals. But we Chinese have yet to have the right to live normal human lives, because we don’t have the vote, because the state does not belong to the people, but to the CCP. We are still on our knees. Many among us found comfort in the fact that, for a few decades or so, there was plenty of fodder to go around. But for how long we are going to put up with our subhuman conditions, now that livelihood is increasingly becoming a problem?

What kind of China do we leave to our children, grandchildren and their children? Do we let them continue to be on their knees, or we, the current generation, rise up and put up a fight?

Today we live in a China of absurdity, shame, unchecked power, and dehumanization, where a dictator perches at the top and people live like hapless ants at the bottom. Such is my motherland, sad, numb, desperate, plunging into an abyss. I will continue to dedicate my life to save her and save my people, for a rebirth of the Chinese civilization.

The curtains of a great era have risen. We are at the darkest hour, but the day is about to break. We will not give up and “lie flat”; instead, we are inspired and revitalized. This will be our era, a citizens’ era, a people’s era. We will dispel forever the specter of communism, bid goodbye to thousands of years of despotism, and open our arms to a revolution of citizens, a splendid chapter in human history. My compatriots, are you ready?

Citizen Xu Zhiyong

August, 2023





  • Xu Zhiyong, Whither China?, China Change, 30 November 2023, with minor revisions

Chinese text:


























































公民 許志永