Heads or Tails — Criticism and Xu Zhangrun

Xu Zhangrun vs. Tsinghua University
Voices of Protest & Resistance (II)


Illiberal Criticism in a State of Denial

Heads or Tails, also known as coin flipping, is a way of making a decision by flipping a coin in the air and guessing which side will show when it lands. In Australia, two-up is a gambling game once popular with both young and old that increased the challenge by employing two coins, traditionally pre-decimal currency pennies. Placed on a board, or ‘kip’, the coins would be thrown into the air by a designated ‘spinner’.

Chinese officialdom has a dim view of games of chance and it decries those who want to have ‘a bob each way’ (‘bob’ is British slang for a shilling coin), that is people who hedge their bets. Nonetheless, in every policy area Xi Jinping’s party-state is itself a gamble, its hopes pinned on the continued success of its authoritarian capitalism. At the core of its enterprise and its credo lies repression, censorship and state-sanctioned violence. Xu Zhangrun, the outspoken professor from Tsinghua University who published a Jeremiad criticising Xi’s China in July 2018 (Imminent Fears, Immediate Hopes, China Heritage, 1 August 2018), is the latest victim of the malevolent workings of The China Story.

Rong Jian (榮劍, 1957-), a well-known and acerbic writer and critic based in Beijing, has frequently published tweets about his friend Xu Zhangrun. Following the news of Professor Xu’s suspension by Tsinghua from teaching duties on 27 March 2019, Rong Jian published pictures of him together with Xu, who was laughing:

Chairman Mao instructed us that: ‘Reactionaries are ill-at-ease when the Masses are happy’. It was impressive to see Mr Xu Zhangrun laughing and in such good spirits, refusing to give in to despair, showing no signs of fear.


Professor Xu Zhangrun with Rong Jian, 27 March 2019. Photograph: Sun Guodong 孫國棟

He followed this with a comment the next day which ended with a famous line from the thinker Gu Yanwu (顧炎武, 1613-1682):

Professor Xu Zhangrun is under pressure at Tsinghua University but I don’t despair. Students at Tsinghua have reported on a teacher [of politics class on Marxism-Leninism] who expressed anti-Party sentiments, still I do not despair. But then I do despair about the fact that the multitude of Tsinghua professors remain unmoved by these developments! Up until now, only Guo Yuhua and Chu Shulong have openly supported Mr Xu and rebuked those tattle-tale students. Kudos to them both. Long ago Gu Yanwu observed:

When the learned are shameless, the land itself knows no shame.

This is a national disgrace: Tsinghua professors, how can you possibly live up to your intellectual ancestors and face those who will come after you?


As Rong Jian noted, the Tsinghua international relations specialist and a prominent media commentator Chu Shulong 楚樹龍 had also spoken out:

The Cultural Revolution was instigated by those who included a small group of Tsinghua students [the original twelve Red Guards supported by Mao were from the middle school attached to Tsinghua University]. Tsinghua University as a whole played an extremely evil role during the Cultural Revolution: it betrayed the interest of the nation, of our people and it betrayed numerous people who were persecuted unjustly and their families [Tsinghua was a particularly infamous hotbed of Lord of the Flies-like youthful grandstanding, self-righteous persecutions and unrestrained violence]. At present it looks as though a group of people set on attacking, accusing, denouncing and struggling against others are working themselves into a state of readiness. What right or qualifications do these types have to accuse others of being ‘Cow Demons and Snake Spirits’ [a Cultural Revolution term for denounced academics and others] or for writing ‘Poisonous Weeds’ [that is academic works or cultural products deemed by Mao to be invidious to the Party]…

文革就是由包括一小批清華學生打手等挑起的。清華大學在文革中起了非常惡劣的作用, 有負於國家、民族和那麽多受迫害的人及家庭。現在看來清華新的一批整人、揭發、批判、鬥爭別人的人有蠢蠢欲動了。不知道這些人有什麼資格、資質指責別人是 “牛鬼蛇神” 和 “毒草”…

The Chinese authorities are anxious to avoid inciting unrest during 2019, a year replete with anniversaries of numerous painful events — the legacy of the 1919 May Fourth Movement, the violent suppression of the 1959 Tibetan Uprising, the 1989 Protest Movement and Beijing Massacre, as well as the 1999 outlawing of the Falungong sect, among others. By suspending Xu Zhangrun and setting up a task force to persecute China’s most outspoken public intellectual at a sensitive moment, Tsinghua University reminds us all of its shameful history of intellectual repression, academic dishonesty and violent politics. In a state of denial, in a nation of shamelessness, Tsinghua is a particularly tainted institution.


Zha Jianguo (查建国, 1953-) is steely oppositionist. A resident of Beijing, Zha has for many years been a voluble critic of the Chinese government. For more on his cantankerous and resilient stance, see Jianying Zha’s ‘Enemy of the State: The complicated life of an idealist.’, The New Yorker, 23 April 2007 (Jianying is Jianguo’s younger sister). Below Zha Jianguo reacts to an opinion piece attacking Xu Zhangrun that was published on 27 March under the name ‘Shan Renping’ 單仁平 (possibly a homonym for 善人評: ‘a decent man’s critique’), the nom de guerre of Hu Xijin 胡錫進, editor of The Global Times, an apologist newspaper that we have previously described as contemporary China’s version of Der StürmerZha’s essay was deleted by China’s internet invigilators almost immediately, perhaps to spare the sensitivities of Shan/ Hu.

— Geremie R. Barmé
Editor, China Heritage
29 March 2019



Adieu 告別

a poem by Tang Yun 唐雲


This is my lectern
Never apart over
Thirty-three years.
These, my students:
Not all of them are Judas

Today I leave, heavy with ignominy
Tomorrow… tomorrow
I will return decked in laurels
For this is my lectern



trans. G.R. Barmé


  • Tang Yun was an associate professor at Chongqing Normal University cashiered by his institution on 20 March 2019 on the grounds that, during a lecture on the writer Lu Xun, as reported by students, he had made statements that were to be ‘detrimental to the nation’s reputation as well as being in flagrant violation of acceptable political standards’. Xu Zhangrun made a point of quoting Tang’s poem when he was suspended by Tsinghua University.


The illustrated protest of Gao Hongjun 高鴻鈞, a professor of law at Tsinghua University. A number of the images feature the word 文字獄 wénzìyù which can be translated as ‘Literary Inquisition’


On Xu Zhangrun and Tsinghua University (March 2019-):

On Zha Jianguo:

Further Reading:


Criticism: Three Liberal Principles


Zha Jianguo 查建國

translated by Geremie R. Barmé


Over recent months, some of the writings of Professor Xu Zhangrun of Tsinghua University have been the focus both of international media attention and online discussions in China. In response to this Shan Renping 單仁平 [aka, editor Hu Xijin 胡錫進], a regular opinionator of The Global Times, published an article titled ‘To Be Constructive, Critics Must Adhere to Three Principles’ 搞批評應守住三個原則, 實現建設性 [or ‘Three Illiberal Principles’ for short]. Below, I challenge Mr Shan’s views and advocate ‘Three Liberal Principles for Criticism’ 批評應有的三個自由原則.


1. Freedom to Criticise the Ruling Party and its Leader

Professor Xu has made many detailed criticisms of the policies of the ruling party be they in the area of politics, economics or foreign policy. Whereas the substance of his critique may be challenged, his right to make such criticisms must be vouchsafed. According to Shan Renping’s ‘Three Illiberal Principles’:

We must resolutely oppose any kind of criticism that questions the authority of the ruling party or that in any way undermines people’s confidence in the content or direction of national policy.

This is tantamount to declaring that the authority of the rulers and confidence in them is entirely dependent on the censoring and banning of all independent criticism. Past or present, be it in China or elsewhere, such behaviour has been and is that of Autocrats.

2. Freedom to Criticise the Articles of the Constitution

In his ‘Three Illiberal Principles’, Shan Renping declares that:

In China it is not permissible for critical works to contravene the Constitution or to direct negative comment at the basic political system of the People’s Republic.

China’s constitution is constantly evolving and this is reflected in the fact that major revisions were made to it in 1988, 1993, 1999 and 2018. In the 2018 revision alone, 28 changes were made to 20 articles while 5 entirely new articles were added to it. So let me ask you this, if all of these changes were made on the basis of there having been no critique or discussion of the original articles, how in heaven’s name were these revisions mooted and made? In the 2018 revision, substantive changes were made to questions related to the nature of property ownership, the position and role of the ruling party, moreover, details of a National Supervisory Commission were added to the document — didn’t all of these constitute significant revisions of and changes to the Constitution? To make a critique of the Constitution does not mean that one is ‘in contravention of the Constitution’ 違憲 [that is, to be illegal]. The Constitution itself protects the individual’s right of the freedom of expression, and that includes calls for the Constitution to change with the times. [This is a reference to Xu’s July 2018 Jeremiad in which he calls for the ‘terminal tenure’ granted to Xi Jinping by a constitutional change in March that year to be rescinded.]

3. Freedom to Elaborate What Constitutes ‘Facts’ or ‘The Truth’

Again, according to his ‘Three Illiberal Principles’, Shan Renping says a critic must ‘not only be observant of realities as they exist on-the-ground, but they must also be mindful of the overriding realities of the situation as a whole.’ So, pray tell, just who is to be the judge of what exactly constitutes ‘reality’ or ‘facts’? It certainly cannot be China’s Rulers or official media outlets such as The Global Times. If there is an ongoing dispute about the facts concerning a particular incident, then there are independent judicial authorities who can investigate and determine the truth. As for the truth or facts regarding the bigger picture, well, that is a matter for History. Again, Mr Shan tells us that ‘it is incumbent upon critics to avoid giving people the mistaken impression that some localised issue is representative of the state of affairs in the nation as a whole.’ I would aver that the relationship between one’s local situation and observations of it and the overall situation is a matter for independent judgement. It is not something that can or should be determined unilaterally by The Powers That Be.


On the basis of these ‘Three Liberal Principles’, I would suggest that criticism can play a constructive role in the development of the nation. Mr Shan’s ‘Three Illiberal Principles’, by contrast, reflect the non-constructive stance of conservative forces that can only hinder the nation’s evolution. The freedom to criticise is inherent in the basic human rights of a person who enjoys free speech and it is a focus of the contestation that is unfolding among the various political forces in China today.

28 March 2019, Beijing

Original Chinese Texts:


Zha Jiangguo’s ‘Three Liberal Principles’

Zha Jianguo’s ‘Three Principles’, original text, 28 March 2019



Shan Renping / Hu Xijin’s ‘Three Illiberal Principles’

Shan Renping/ Hu Xijin’s ‘Three Illiberal Principles’, 27 March 2019