Geng Xiaonan, Ren Zhiqiang & China’s Refuseniks

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Over the years we have all too frequently had reason to quote a famous observation by Sima Qian 司馬遷, the Grand Historian of the Han dynasty:

The refusal of one decent man
outweighs the acquiescence of the multitude.

‘Biography of Lord Shang’
《史記 · 商君列傳第八》
trans. G.R. Barmé

Simon Leys used Sima Qian’s line as the untranslated epigraph of The Chairman’s New Clothes, his 1971 exposé of the Cultural Revolution. (See One Decent ManThe New York Review of Books, 28 June 2018.) And Xu Zhangrun, as well as his supporters, have quoted it either in full or in part over the last few years when protesting against state censorship and chiding unprincipled complicity with the system. (See, for example, Xu Zhangrun 許章潤, ‘And Teachers, Then? They Just Do Their Thing!’China Heritage, 10 November 2018; and, Tao Haisu 陶海粟, ‘Poetic Justice — a protest in verse’China Heritage, 5 April 2019.)

The following essay is an extended comment on the co-joined cases of the cultural entrepreneur Geng Xiaonan and Ren Zhiqiang, a real estate tycoon. It was circulated without a title or the name of an author on 29 September 2020. We have chosen a title — ‘Geng Xiaonan, Ren Zhiqiang & China’s Refuseniks’ — that revives a Soviet-era term, ‘refusenik’ отказник. Originally, refusenik was used to describe Jews who had been refused permission to emigrate to Israel. Over time, it came to enjoy a broader cachet and can be used to refer to anyone who refuses to be cowed by authority or who engages in protest.

China has an ancient and laudable, albeit tragic, tradition of homegrown refuseniks. Nonetheless, we think that the somewhat dated Soviet expression, with its various resonances, can be a useful appellation when describing the heroic few who openly resist the New China Order of Xi Jinping and his cohort.


The anonymous essay translated below is introduced by way of a discussion of the Chinese Communist Party’s gangster nature. This aspect of Party history and behaviour was well known during its early years, from 1921 to 1949; and it has excited comment, both within the Chinese world and among more perceptive international students of China, ever since. Since our main text touches on a number of terms with originally disreputable connotations that now occur in mainstream Party discourse, we preface anonymous’s essay with a mini glossary of what we call ‘China’s open underworld’. This is an extension of our ‘Know Thyself Primer’ 知己知彼語彙, which we launched in May this year. (See ‘Mangling May Fourth 2020 in Washington’China Heritage, 14 May 2020.)

Although we focus on China’s gangster-state, our observations will also resonate with those familiar with the skulduggery of the Gangster White House of Trump Inc. in Washington. For the moment at least then, it would appear that ‘thugocracy’ is dominant in both capitals. For those living on the periphery of the hydra-like beast of the Sino-American at-war dual empire, it appears as though the Siamese twins of global politics increasingly share more in common with each other than many of their inhabitants might be willing to acknowledge.

— Geremie R. Barmé
Editor, China Heritage
2 October 2020


On Geng Xiaonan in Detention:

On Geng Xiaonan & Xu Zhangrun:

Related Material:

, fǒu, obstruction; to negate, reject; no! A rubbing from the Tang Duan Xingchen Stele 唐段行琛碑, written in the hand of Zhang Zeng 張増 and dated the Fourteenth Year of the Dali reign period of the Tang dynasty 唐 ・ 大曆十四年 (779 CE)


Xi Jinping’s New-era Gangster State

‘[Xi Jinping’s] dictatorial regime is akin to a hegemon having his way with the people, an autocracy bereft of broad-based support. That is why Xi and his Claque rely on the dark code of omertà, one typical of this Communist-style mafia.’


Feng Chongyi 馮崇義, commenting on
Xu Zhangrun’s oppositional stance in
‘A Scholar’s Virtus & the Hubris of the Dragon’
China Heritage, 22 May 2019


As I noted in the Red Rising, Red Eclipse — China Story Yearbook 2012:

‘The China Story … is that of a formerly underground political party that recast itself, first as a revolutionary national leadership in the late 1940s and then as a legitimate government in power (zhizhengdang 执政党) some three decades ago. For all the paraphernalia of state power, to this day its internal protocols and behaviour recall its long history as a covert, highly secretive and faction-ridden organisation. Even under Mao, some commentators called China a “mafia-state”.’

from ‘Red Eclipse’, chapter 10
Red Rising, Red Eclipse
ed. Geremie R. Barmé, 2012


In his book Making a Case for Humanity Over Banditry 《人間不是匪幫》, published in May 2019, Xu Zhangrun paired the word 匪 fěi, bandit or brigand, with 幫 bāng, a similarly derogatory term used to describe a clutch, group, clique or faction. 幫 bāng famously occurs in the political expression 四人幫 sìrén bāng, or ‘Gang of Four’. Originally an invention of Mao Zedong, ‘Gang of Four’ was intended to be a cautionary shorthand describing his four closest allies, a group centred on Jiang Qing 江青, his fourth wife. The Chairman warned the group against falling into clumsy (and strategically ill-fated) factionalism — but he nonetheless encouraged their political ambitions. Shortly after the Chairman’s death in September 1976, the expression ‘Gang of Four’ was used in anti-Cultural Revolution official propaganda to denounce the four revolutionary stalwarts — Wang Hongwen, Zhang Chunqiao, Jiang Qing and Yao Wenyuan — who had been arrested in early October 1976 along with many of their supporters. The expression was subsequently employed to attack policies associated not only with the ‘Gang’ but, by association, with Mao himself, and indeed with the Communist Party as a whole.

In combining the words 匪 fěi and 幫 bāng — 匪幫 fěi bāng — Xu  Zhangrun was suggesting that, at its core, the Communist Party is an illicit and lawless grouping that, ultimately, has mayhem, mischief and deviltry in mind. For this reader, that title of Xu’s book recalled an observation Simon Leys made about the Communists in 1977:

‘The psychology and behaviour of Peking’s ruling clique are those of gangsters. This is not just a colourful and polemical way of speaking but a sober statement of fact, and in fact it is the underworld which might find the comparison insulting — after all its members do have some sense of honour (even of a perverse variety), personal loyalty, and a warped kind of brotherhood in arms. That is a lot more than can be said for the turncoats and cut-throats of the Forbidden City, whose ceaseless intrigues and mutual waylaying round the corners of the corridors of power, as well as their cynically shifting alliances, are proof of a lack of principle which would have brought a blush to the cheeks of the members of the secret societies of the old Shanghai underworld.’

Simon Leys, Peking Duck Soup, reprinted in
China Heritage, 23 January 2018


The Chinese Communist Party’s Open Underworld
(A Mini Glossary)

明白 míngbai:

This seemingly innocent expression, which in colloquial Chinese simply means ‘I understand’, gained a new significance in February 2020 when details emerged about the silencing of Dr Li Wenliang 李文亮, among other whistleblower medical professionals, who had discussed the dangers of a new Wuhan-originated influenza in late December 2019. When Li was required by the police to repent for having ‘spread rumours’ about a new SARS-like flue, he was asked: ‘Do you understand [what you’re being told/ what you’re being accused of and what you must now do]?’ 你聽明白了嗎? Li wrote and signed the words, ‘I understand’ 明白 on a formal admission of wrongdoing.

Following Dr Li’s death from the coronavirus on 7 February, 明白 míngbai became a widespread online term that was used to decry the heavy handed tactics employed by the Wuhan authorities to clamp down on free speech and the spiraling crisis surrounding the epidemic. People were saying that they ‘got it alright’ 明白了 míngbai le, but not in any way that benefited the Communist spin-doctors.

In Communist Party parlance, by contrast, 明白 míngbai has a very particular meaning, for it connotes submissive understanding, acquiescence, as well as unabashed and unprincipled surrender to the Powers That Be.

明白人 míngbai rén:

From mid 2015, this colloquial phrase has enjoyed a new and pointedly political rise to prominence thanks to Xi Jinping who used it in an address to a group of Outstanding County Party Secretaries:

‘You must “be someone who gets it” [做明白人, that is, be unreservedly politically aligned] and be unwaveringly loyal to the Party. You must always maintain strict unity with Party Central, whether it be in terms of your ideological stance, your political understanding or your real-world actions. You must be devoted to the Party’s ideals, commit to cultivating jointly the spiritual garden of all Party People, actively adhere to and put into practice the Core Socialist Values. You must conscientiously abide by all Party rules and regulations and make sure that you are constantly and absolutely clear-headed [清醒 about Party prerogatives], as well as being unbending in your political stance in every way possible.’


——’習近平在會見全國優秀縣委書記時提出的要求’, 2015年6月30日

In December that same year, a chapter of Party Lectures 黨課, an online primer, described 明白人 míngbai rén in the following terms:

‘To be someone who “gets it” politically means that you absolutely appreciate the fact that political discipline and the various rules and regulations that govern the Party are its lifeblood. They form a red line which must never be crossed under any circumstances. You must adhere absolutely to the hardline position [literally, ‘bottom lines’] of Party thought, always maintain reverence in the face of the political power [of Xi Jinping. The term 敬畏 jìng wèi, also ‘awe’ or ‘tremulous awe’, used here is an old expression that pulsates with a threatening undercurrent. Its use has been revived in the Xi era], be ever-mindful and painstakingly responsible in all of your actions; exercise great care in what you say and thoughtful about what you do. You must not allow the core of your Party-being to be corrupted, or ever overstep the mark. You must be serious and practical in pursuing the demands you make of yourself and bolster the undiluted revolutionary red essence of yourself and all Party members as you apply yourselves to realising the Party’s ideals in the service of the masses.’


——‘共產黨員必須做政治上的「明白人」 ’, 2015年12月02日

Some years later, in May 2019, Li Guoping 李国平, a student in the School of State Governance of the Central Party School, summed up his appreciation of the term 明白人 míngbai rén like this:

‘An individual’s personality is an expression of their state of their personal cultivation, of who they really are. Party members must all measure themselves against the standards set by Xi Jinping Thought for the New Era in regard to their individual political qualities, their pursuit of [Party] values, in regard to their inner world and personal demeanour. In so doing, they must tirelessly make demands of themselves, endlessly strengthen and refine themselves, consciously impose strictures on themselves, undertake ceaseless thought reform and be absolutely motivated to become “a person who gets it” [明白人] and “a person who is reliable/ trustworthy” [老實人].’


——李國平, ‘自覺做政治上的明白人老實人’,《共產黨員網》, 2019年05月08日

Here we would note that such injunctions closely mirror the message of ‘The Cultivated Communist’ 論共產黨員的修養, a series of still-crucially-significant lectures given by the Party leader Liu Shaoqi in Yan’an in July 1939. (For more on this, see Homo XinensisChina Heritage, 31 August 2018; and, Jianying Zha, ‘The Revenant Han Fei’, China Heritage, 20 July 2020.)

老實人 lǎoshi rén:

Often taken in everyday life to mean a stolid, innocuous or reliable person, 老實人 lǎoshi rén can also mean to be a useful idiot, or someone who is so lacking in guile that they can easily be manipulated. In the Communist Party lexicon 老實人 lǎoshi rén means to be obedient, although in reality it is also a code expression for someone who has mastered the skill of being superficially compliant while scheming in pursuit of a personal agenda. Some regard 老實人 lǎoshi rén as being a compliment, although one rarely encounters anyone who really takes pride in being dubbed 老實 lǎoshi. The attributes of the ideal underling outlined below will, for the most part, be familiar to anyone who has been subjected to human resources training, or ‘managerial up-skilling’, although they include a few twists and turns particular to the political ecology of China’s Communists:

The Ten Attributes a Party Leader
Looks for in a 老實人 lǎoshi rén

  1. Someone who shuns false camaraderie with you while contributing positively to the tasks at hand. 不和你套近乎但又能積極配合你工作的人
  2. Someone who doesn’t cultivate inappropriately close relations with you but nonetheless completely appreciates your painstaking efforts. 不和你多走動但又能體諒你良苦用心的人
  3. Someone who isn’t constantly visiting you at home to develop a special relationship, but who prefers to spend time visiting lower-level party organs and the masses. 不經常往你家裡跑但卻常常往基層跑的人
  4. Someone who does not bumptiously concern themselves with your private affairs, but who focusses on helping underlings deal with their anxieties and overcome their difficulties. 不關心你生活私事卻幫下層排憂解難的人
  5. Someone who refrains from lavishing praise on you to your face, but is nonetheless always mindful of contributing positively to building up your reputation. 不當面恭維你但又能自覺樹立你威信的人
  6. Someone who doesn’t make a big show of declaring their position in keeping with policy, but who gets the job done with optimal results. 不向你表態但能高標準完成工作任務的人
  7. Someone who is not always inviting praise and commendation, but who is truly creative in undertaking their own work. 不愛多邀功多表功但又能創造性工作的人
  8. Someone who is not given to making personal requests of the Party organisation, but who applies themselves to the tasks at hand with enthusiasm. 不愛向組織提個人要求但又積極表現的人
  9. Someone who doesn’t constantly second-guess you, but who is devoted to performing their duties in a forthright and principled manner. 不愛看你臉色行事但卻又能公事公辦的人
  10. Someone who does not fawn over those in power, but who is punctilious in their ministrations to those who are no longer in power. 不喜歡給在崗燒香又能給離任送溫暖的人

—— ‘領導選老實人的10條標準’, 《共產黨員微信》, 2015年07月24日

自己人 zìjǐ rén:

In a domestic situation this expression can mean that you are ‘one of the family’; in a group it means that you are ‘one of us’. In the eyes of the Communist Party, it means that, once you are claimed to be ‘in the tent’, you are henceforth bound by a choking skein of political, personal and hierarchical relationships that will determine every aspect of your own life as well as the lives of your loved ones.

自己人 zìjǐ rén can be a term of endearment as much as it is one of entrapment. It can mean that one is welcomed into a group or family with all of the relaxed generosity that may imply. However, membership requires that dues are to be paid. These include an expectation that the individual must be unfailingly loyal and committed, emotionally and materially to the collective good of the group, even when that betrays one’s own sense of self. Such demands can prove to be not only burdensome, but also compromising. Among close friends the expression 自己人 zìjǐ rén can also convey an air of skulduggery; after all, it is a declaration that you are in a gang and that the rules of ‘mateship’, to use an Australian expression, are unforgiving.

Xi Jinping pointedly used the term 自己人 zìjǐ rén on 1 November 2018 when he ‘convened an unprecedented “symposium” to hear the views of dozens of representatives from the private sector – including Robin Li of Baidu and Pony Ma of Tencent. They were joined by economic policymakers, ministers and bankers as well as the vice-premiers Han Zheng and Liu He.’ On that occasion, Xi declared that ‘private enterprises and private entrepreneurs belong to our own family’ 民營企業和民營企業家是我們自己人。(See ‘習近平在民營企業座談會上的講話(全文)’, 2018年11月1日.) It was an expression of solidarity that, by inference, imposed a demand for absolute fealty.

Outspoken critics of Xi Jinping like Xu Zhangrun, Cai Xia and Ren Zhiqiang, among others, have said that China’s Chairman of Everything simply reveals himself to be akin to 黑幫老大 hēibāng lǎodà, a ‘godfather’ or capo dei capi.


On Taking New China Newspeak Seriously

The author of the following essay, like many other commentators on contemporary Chinese politics, expresses surprise that ‘Opinion Regarding Enhancing United Front Work in the Private Business Sector During the New Age’, a formal document issued by the Communist Party in mid September 2020, contained the words 明白人 míngbai rén, that is, ‘someone who understands their place in the scheme of things’, an expression  with undeniable underground or criminal connotations.

For the author to be nonplussed in this way betrays a cavalier reality: unless one is required to as part of one’s professional development, or to maintain and advance one’s position in the system, few people willingly familiarise themselves with the Party’s ever-evolving lexicon of New China Newspeak. It is a telling blindspot for many liberal oppositionists in China, as it is of critics and scholars of the Communists internationally: it is too often the case that these bien-pensants fail to take Party thinking, dogma and parole seriously. One may and, invariably, must lampoon and reject the palaver of partyspeak since, certainly, it invites derision. However, to ignore it, or to blind oneself to the significance and meaning of the holistic mental landscape that the Party ‘langue’ reflects, not to mention the political and social realities that it generates through its ‘parole’ in real time, is tantamount to engaging in a willful act of self-deception in the face of a canny, ruthless and battle-tempered mass political organisation that rules over a quarter of humanity.

That is why, for over fifteen years, we have advocated New Sinology 後漢學. This means the study of the Chinese world that, while embracing the full range of vital and engaging traditions, as well as the ebullient reality of the everyday, also delves into what Jianying Zha calls ‘China’s heart of darkness’.

Further Reading:

Geng Xiaonan, Ren Zhiqiang & China’s Refuseniks

Translated and annotated by Geremie R. Barmé


On the 9th of September, Geng Xiaonan, a businesswoman who has been particularly active and outspoken over recent years in the realm of public culture, was detained along with her husband. They were alleged to have been engaging in ‘illegal business activities’. [Note: see ‘Xu Zhangrun: “I Am Compelled to Speak Out in Defence of Geng Xiaonan” ‘.] This development resulted in yet another wave of protest — in China and internationally — against the repeated attempts by the Beijing authorities to clamp down on free speech and dissidents. According to the latest information posted online by the Protect Rights Network on 22 September, legal counsel acting on Geng’s behalf were refused permission to meet with their clients some four times. [Note: Geng’s lawyer, Shang Baojun, eventually met with the couple on 30 September.]


Who then is Geng Xiaonan? Among the men and women of conscience in China who, in their pursuit of freedom and justice have been repeatedly repressed by the authorities, the activities of a number of women are particularly noteworthy. They have shown themselves to be no less engaged with the issues than men. Among their number Geng Xiaonan cuts an heroic figure.

Geng enjoys a well-earned reputation as a successful Beijing publisher, an independent TV producer and a cultural entrepreneur. Despite these achievements, she has repeatedly fashioned herself as being merely a ‘minor figure’. She has declared that she is in no way heroic; rather, she has emphasised that she feels duty bound to do her bit and to take some responsibility for others. She has said that her role is to encourage the true heroes; she helps ‘guide their steeds’ and, when necessary, to take care of things in the event of their demise.

Geng has frequently been an active advocate for people who have landed themselves in trouble for pursuing the truth, and her circle of friends includes many famous politically sensitive individuals like Bao Tong 鮑彤, Du Guang 杜光, Yao Jianfu 姚監復 and Yang Jisheng 楊繼繩. She has offered long-term support to people such as these at the time of their greatest sufferingx.


On Chinese Lunar New Year’s Eve [in late January 2020], the lawyer and citizen-journalist Chen Qiushi 陳秋實 caught the last high-speed train that was running between Beijing to Wuhan. He wanted to produce on-the-ground reports about the unfolding coronavirus crisis online. He worked hard to report on what was really happening in Wuhan while dealing with the most arduous circumstances. As a result of his efforts, he was ‘disappeared’ at the end of January. [Note: In fact, Chen was detained on 6 February.] Thereafter, one person in particular actively lobbied on his behalf and she did her utmost to call attention to his fate and garner support for him. That person was none other than Geng Xiaonan.

On 6 July, Professor Xu Zhangrun, a legal scholar who had published a series of essays directly criticising Xi Jinping, was detained by the police on suspicion of having ‘soliciting prostitutes’. [Note: See 無可奈何 — So It Goes’.] Again, the first person to reveal publicly details of those unfolding events and to speak to the international media in support of Professor Xu — actions that helped focus attention on a parlous situation, turning it into a cause célèbre both domestically and internationally — was Geng Xiaonan.


For years Geng Xiaonan has spoken out in support of a range of people subjected to political persecution merely for advocating decency and justice. This is how she has become known as a ‘Woman Warrior’. This time around, however, it is this courageous woman herself, along with her husband, who have fallen foul of the authorities. Many of Geng Xiaonan’s close friends speculate that the real reason for her detention is her longterm outspoken support for China’s public intellectuals and dissidents, including Xu Zhangrun.


On 9 September, Xu, who had recently been cashiered by Tsinghua University, published ‘A Letter to China’s Dictators’. In it he called on the authorities to release Geng Xiaonan. ‘Put an end to your evil and lay down your butcher’s blade!’, he wrote. ‘If Xiaonan is guilty, then the guilt is also mine. Do not persecute this woman. If you must have someone to jail, even to kill, then let it be me!’


These developments are related to another case.

On 11 September, two days after Geng Xiaonan was detained, Ren Zhiqiang 任志強, the former CEO of the Huayuan Real Estate Group and a member of the Second Generation of Red Royalists, was sentenced to eighteen years in jail by a Beijing court. He was also fined RMB 4.2 million. Ren is a sixty-nine-year-old man. If he doesn’t have his sentence reduced he’ll end up spending the rest of his life in jail.


Ren Zhiqiang is popularly known as ‘Big Cannon Ren’. The real reason for such a heavy prison sentence is that, in February this year, he published a signed essay titled ‘The Lives of the People are Endangered both by a Virus and by an Inherently Diseased System’. In it, he talked about Xi Jinping by name, calling him ‘a politically ambitious clown’, even saying that ‘He [Xi] doesn’t even disguise his ambition to be an emperor and he’s determined to destroy anyone who dares get in his way.’ Ren disappeared shortly after that essay appeared.

On 7 April, the authorities formally announced that Ren Zhiqiang, who was a member of the Chinese Communist Party, was being investigated for serious breaches of Party discipline, as well as for having broken the law. On 23 July, Ren was formally arraigned by that organisation and charged with engaging in political activities that violated Party norms, moreover that he had abused the Party’s organisational protocols, betrayed the expected standards of correct demeanor and behaviour of a Party man and engaged in inappropriate business practices. The charges also indicted him for his lack of professionalism and for his unacceptable lifestyle. The formal legal charges levelled against him included accusations related to bribery, corruption, the misuse of public funds and the egregious manipulation of personnel working in a state-owned enterprise undertaken with the aim of breaking the law. At that time, Ren was formally expelled from the Party and his case referred to the procuracy for further investigation.


The purge of Ren Zhiqiang and Geng Xiaonan in the wake of the repression of Xu Zhangrun shows that the authorities are determined to rid themselves of the small number of stand-out figures. It is part of a strategy to intimidate the masses into further submission. All three have connections inside the Communist Party establishment and, to-date, they had enjoyed a measure of personal influence. They dared confront the New Authoritarian openly and, by so doing, they have had a not-inconsiderable impact on society and public opinion. These are exactly the kinds of people the Party authorities were talking about when they said: ‘We will not allow people who have been nurtured on the milk of the Party’s kindness, and who have benefited from the system, to turn around and criticise the Party itself.’

The Party is determined to punish severely any person of conscience who can boast of enjoying a public reputation. In doing so, they are proving Ren Zhiqiang’s point for him [when talking about Xi Jinping’s ambition]: ‘I’ll obliterate anyone who stands in the way of me becoming emperor.’


This time, however, the authorities haven’t dragged out their old playbook and accused these people of conscience of the usual miscellaneous crimes such as ‘inciting the subversion of state power’, ‘spreading rumours and engaging in libelous speech’, or even ‘gathering a crowd to incite a pubic incident’. They are worried that the outside world might accuse them of human rights abuses and that they are merely punishing people for what they have said and written. Now they are covering themselves by arresting people for having engaged in ‘illegal business activities’ where in fact what they really want to do is crush free speech.


Recently, the Central Party Office issued an ‘Opinion Regarding Enhancing United Front Work in the Private Business Sector During the New Age’. [Note: See Chris Buckley and Keith Bradsher, ‘China’s Communists to Private Business: You Heed Us, We’ll Help You’The New York Times, 17 September 2020.] Although this document claims that ‘the private economy is a crucial aspect of the Chinese economy as a whole’, and even goes so far as to call business people engaged in the private sector as being ‘part of the family’ [自己人], the real intention of that document was to pressure the private sector into submitting to the Party’s united front strategy and ideological oversight [whereby it can more effectively impose Party ideas and policies]. In this way, China’s businesspeople can be turned into what the Party calls ‘[politically] astute individuals’ [明白人]. It is unprecedented for a term like ‘people who get it’ [明白人] to be used in an official party document. [Note: As readers will have read in the mini glossary above, actually this is not the case since the term 明白人 míngbai rén has been part of formal Party language since mid 2015.] That’s because it is the kind of language usually associated with gangsters [黑幫]. In the underground world someone who ‘gets it’ [明白 míngbai] knows full well that, when necessary, they will have to ‘play dumb’. More important yet is their willingness to ‘hear and see no evil’, and a readiness to ‘glom on to the power holders and be under no allusions as to what is in their own best interests’. It goes without saying that, by using the expression ‘people who get it’ [明白人], the authorities are saying that anyone who ‘refuses to get it’ really will ‘get it’.


From the perspective of the authorities, independent business entrepreneurs like Ren Zhiqiang and Geng Xiaonan are anything but ‘part of the family’. What really counts is not whether people ‘abide by the law’, but if they have a compliant political attitude and ideological position vis-à-vis the Party. These two Refuseniks, however, have publicly questioned the wisdom of the highest leadership, moreover, they have dared to criticise The One who is situated at the heart of the court. Because he simply ‘didn’t go along with things’, Ren Zhiqiang has ended up being sentenced to eighteen years in jail. So we must ask, how come Geng Xiaonan, someone who lives in the imperial capital and has been witness to all of this, simply doesn’t get it either? Instead, she has chosen to follow the dictates of her own conscience. She has simply refused to be ‘one of them’. That’s why, when people of conscience like Xu Zhangrun and Chen Qiushi have been unjustly persecuted, Geng Xiaonan chose to speak out on their behalf, and she did so fearlessly. Throughout, she was also preparing for the worst-case scenario, something evidenced by the fact that she signed a power of attorney with a lawyer before she was even detained.

In an interview that she gave to [Bei Ming of] Radio Free Asia, Geng Xiaonan declared that her efforts on behalf of dissidents were undertaken in full knowledge of the dangers they presented for her. She told the interviewer that she was simply following what her heart told her to do. In fact, she said, she didn’t give it a second thought nor, she emphasised, did she weigh up the possible consequences of her actions in advance.

Of course, in an age of terror such as ours, people who simply refuse to ‘get it’ are a minority of truly ‘aware individuals’. [Note: ‘aware individuals’, or 清醒者 qīng xǐng zhě , literally ‘those who are conscious and awake’, also ‘clear-headed and not drunk’. From the early twentieth century, ‘awakening’ 覺醒 jué xǐng  and ‘being clear-headed’ 清醒 qīng xǐng, or ‘awake and aware’ 醒悟 xǐng wù have been terms infused with powerful political and social significance. See, for example, John Fitzgerald, Awakening China: Politics, Culture, and Class in the Nationalist Revolution, Stanford University Press, 1996. The constellation of ideas represented by word-concepts that reflect the idea of being ‘sober and clear-headed’ 清醒 qīng xǐng, as well as describing those who are possessed of an awareness of injustice, or who refuse to go along with the unthinking herd, are also integral to the traditional lexicon. See, for example, ‘The Fisherman’ 漁夫 in The Songs of the South 楚辭, attributed to Qu Yuan (屈原, c. 340-278 BC), which contains the famous line:

Because all the world is muddy and I alone am clear,
and because all men are drunk and I alone am sober,
I have been sent into exile.’


— trans. David Hawkes.]


The situation in China is rapidly deteriorating. Everyone, whether they be in- or outside the party-state system, and regardless of their social status or wealth, is living in a highly repressive political environment. Many choose to swallow their anger in response, but a small number of men and women feel compelled by a sense of decency to speak their minds regardless. They reject the status quo. Although some of them have been imprisoned on the pretext of this or that ‘crime’ and, despite the detention of Geng Xiaonan, a Cultural Woman Warrior, and the sentencing of Ren Zhiqiang, their advocacy for freedom and the rule of law will continue to inspire more and more people to brave the foul weather that besets us as we press on.

29 September 2020




‘Seven-thousand words of daring speech from a venerable man,/ Eighteen years in fearless jail from a fearful state’. Autumn 2020