As we have observed in Viral Alarm — China Heritage Annual 2020, commentators have detected a disturbing echo
‘…between the xenophobic extremism of late-dynastic Qing politics and recent developments occasioned by the 2019-2020 coronavirus epidemic. In particular … the resonances, if not the repetition, of the unsettling themes and tropes of the two ‘gengzi years’ of 1900 and 2020.’
We explained that:
‘A “Gengzi Year” 庚子年 occurs once every thirty-seven years in the traditional sixty-year lunar calendrical cycle. In modern times, and in the popular imagination, “gengzi years” are associated with disaster and hardship: the gengzi year of 1840 coincided with the First Opium War with Britain; 1900 was the year of the Boxer Rebellion; and 1960 marked a particularly harrowing period during the Great Famine that followed the Great Leap Forward.’
— from the introduction to ‘1900 & 2020 — An Old Anxiety
in a New Era’, China Heritage, 28 April 2020
In the 25 August 2020 edition of Washington Notes 華盛頓手記, Bei Ming 北明, a noted émigre writer, broadcaster and commentator on Chinese affairs, reviewed the ‘rhyming history’ of the ‘gengzi years’ of 1840, 1900, 1960 and 2020. In doing so, she focussed in particular on the case of Professor Xu Zhangrun, the ‘Cassandra of the New Era of Xi Jinping’. After detailing the calamities that have befallen China in the 2020 Gengzi Year she offers a summary chronology of Xu Zhangrun’s five-year-long protest, from January 2016 to August 2020. She concludes by reading out the letter of thanks that Xu Zhangrun addressed to his supporters at Harvard University who, in mid August, had offered him an affiliation with the Fairbank Center for Chinese Studies as an Associate in Research.
The title Bei Ming uses for this chapter of Washington Notes is ‘立此存照’ lì cǐ cún zhào. It is an expression that means ‘for future reference’ or, as we translate it here, ‘let the record show’. Made famous by Lu Xun, the irrepressible literary paragon of twentieth-century Chinese letters, ‘For Future Reference’ 立此存照 was the title of seven politically pointed essays that he wrote shortly before his death in 1936 (see: 魯迅著, 《且介亭雜文附集》).
Bei Ming’s account is an indictment by means of which she also bears witness.
- Subheadings have been added and, where relevant, Bei Ming’s ‘Xu Zhangrun Chronology’ has been supplemented with notes and links, which are indicated by square brackets.
— Geremie R Barmé
Editor, China Heritage
30 August 2020
- 北明, ‘專欄|華盛頓手記：耿瀟男詳說許章潤（上）’, 《自由亞洲電台》, 2020年7月24日
- 北明, ‘專欄|華盛頓手記：耿瀟男詳說許章潤（下）’, 《自由亞洲電台》, 2020年7月25日
- Bei Ming’s Twitter: @BeiMingRFA
- Laura Walters, ‘NZ expert helps professor fight Chinese state’, Newsroom, 21 August 2020
- ‘Viral Alarm’, China Heritage Annual 2020 (12 February 2020-)
- Xu Zhangrun, ‘China’s Moment’, Reading the China Dream, 22 October 2018
- Xu Zhangrun 許章潤 Archive
How can we merely wish to survive no better than swine, fawn upon the power-holders like curs and live like maggots in mire?!
— Xu Zhangrun
Click on the arrow in this image for the audio recording of ‘Let the Record Show’, an episode of Bei Ming’s Washington Notes devoted to Xu Zhangrun broadcast on Radio Free Asia on 25 August 2020. In the above image, Xu Zhangrun is seen standing in front of ‘The long-suffering people flee the Qin in their quest for freedom’ 天下苦秦久矣, 眾冥奔向自由!, a painting at the studio of the artist Liu Yaming 劉亞明 , which he visited on 16 June 2020
Let the Record Show
25 August 2020
Translated & annotated by Geremie R. Barmé
The 2020 Gengzi Year has seen China ravaged by calamities that have wreaked havoc inside and beyond the Great Wall:
It started with a rampaging epidemic, added to by the destructive surges of flood waters along the reaches of the Yangtze River. It is as though the forces of nature themselves are misaligned, for there have also been unseasonal snowfalls, and unexpected tempests have strafed the land, lighting up the skies. The earth too has erupted and a spate of earthquakes has seen mountains crumble and bridges collapse.
Xi Jinping’s Eight Outstanding Achievements
Disastrous human miscalculation has only served to exacerbate the crescendo of natural disasters. As for the vaunted ‘sagacious’ leadership of ‘Build the China Dream Xi Jinping’, wise people have enumerated Eight Outstanding Achievements:
- One, the collapse of the nation’s economy;
- Two, the poisoning of the international environment;
- Three, the depletion of foreign currency reserves;
- Four, the undermining of the financial and trading position of Hong Kong, previously vouchsafed by the One Country, Two Systems governance framework, and the endangerment of that global centre of free trade;
- Five, the disruption of global chains of production;
- Six, unemployment numbers have reached unprecedented heights;
- Seven, ‘Imperium Americana’ has placed its forces in the West Pacific in battle array; anything could spark a military conflagration;
- Eight, the precipitous decline in the number of Taiwanese (as well as Hong Kong people) willing to identify themselves with Mainland Chinese.
Piling together in the space of under twelve months, these Eight Achievements are remarkable. Taken together, they may well be the most egregious example of comprehensive failed autocratic rulership in Chinese history.
Two more items should be added to this omnishambles:
- Nine, American goodwill towards China with a century of history behind it has been befouled; and,
- Ten, due to a willful act of silence, the coronavirus epidemic in China became a global pandemic. Without even a shot being fired, some 530,000 people now have been killed worldwide.
[China’s state media offers adulation for] Xi Jinping’s ‘governance genius’ and ‘administrative acumen’; well, this is what it really looks like. There’s no doubt about it: Chairman Xi possesses historically unprecedented mind-boggling and breath-taking talents!
The Vicious Cycle of Gengzi
The lunar year 2020-2021 is the fourth Gengzi Year in modern Chinese history. It has been a period of 180 years, a period bracketed by Gengzi Years and one that Li Hongzhang [the late-Qing-dynasty court official in charge of foreign affairs] long ago observed proved to be ‘the greatest transformation experienced by China in three thousand years’. The four Gengzi Years that span from 1840 to 2020 each mark a particularly disastrous moment in the modern history of the country:
The lunar year 2020-2021 is the fourth Gengzi Year in modern Chinese history — a stretch of one-hundred and eighty years bracketed at either end by Gengzi Years. It is a period that, as it was unfolding in the late-nineteenth century, Li Hongzhang [the late-Qing-dynasty court official in charge of foreign affairs] observed was proving to be ‘the greatest transformation experienced by China in three thousand years’. Each of the three Gengzi Years spanning from 1840 to 1960 represents particularly disastrous moments in the modern history of the country:
- The Gengzi Year of 1840: Chinese had proved unable to resist the seduction of opium, yet the Celestial Empire regarded itself as racially superior and smugly dismissed the ‘Foreign Barbarians’. That period ended with the disastrous defeat in the Opium War at the hands of Britain leading to the ceding of control over Hong Kong;
- The Gengzi Year of 1900: resisting the need for political reform the court of the Empress Dowager fomented the disastrous uprising of the Boxer bandits which resulted in a foreign military alliance invading Beijing to relieve eleven beleaguered diplomatic missions. Having thus shamed themselves, the Qing court was forced to sue for peace and pay reparations with interest that [by the time the sum was amortised in 1940] amounted to one billion taels of silver [equivalent to 37,000 tonnes]. [See: The Boxer Protocol; and, Zi Zhongyun 資中筠, ‘1900 & 2020 — An Old Anxiety in a New Era’, China Heritage, 28 April 2020]
- The Gengzi Year of 1960: the policies of the Communists resulted in a massive famine during which up to sixty million people starved to death, a figure that is equivalent to the global death toll of the Second World War.
From ancient times it was thought that a series of unnatural phenomena were a warning for humanity, although actual disaster invariably was authored by human agency. We are living in the present Gengzi Year of 2020-2021, and signs of calamity are on full display.
Friends, in this episode of my Washington Notes, I have chosen to focus on Xu Zhangrun, a man who has taken it upon himself to challenge the turpitude of the nation’s leader and the maladministration of his government. Xu Zhangrun is a scholar who stands steadfast in opposition to these unfolding disasters. That is why I am offering the following account, one that will be ‘On the Record’. In so doing my hope is both to memorialise his actions and to detail his sufferings. I do so as a record and a resource for the future.
The media has reported that, having been stripped of everything following his release from seven days of detention not long ago [in early July], Xu Zhangrun received, on 18 August, an invitation from [the Fairbank Center for Chinese Studies at] Harvard University, inviting him to pursue research. Just as plaudits for this happy development resounded there were reports that he had been definitively forbidden from leaving China.
What is it about Xu Zhangrun that so obsesses the Chinese authorities that they simply can’t leave him alone? The answer can easily be divined as soon as we review the details of Xu Zhangrun’s recent work:
Xu Zhangrun: A Chronology of Protest & Persecution
January, Xu Zhangrun wrote and published ‘Reaffirming the Magisterial Importance of the Idea of a Republic’, an essay in which he emphasised that China belonged to all of its 1.4 billion inhabitants and openly rejected the idea that one political party or faction could claim a monopoly over the geopolitical territory [literally, ‘Rivers and Mountains’] of the nation.
January, Xu Zhangrun wrote and published ‘China Must Avoid Civil War’ [also published under the title ‘China on the Brink: Words of Warning in a Prosperous Age’ 盛世危言: 中國在臨界點上], in which he rejected the politics of ceaseless struggle [as propounded by Xi Jinping] and warned of the dangers resulting from ever-tightening strictures over public expression. In this essay, Xu called on people to oppose the rising tide of extreme leftism that was increasingly in evidence.
January, Xu Zhangrun wrote and published ‘Defend the “Economic Reforms and Open Door Policy” ’, an essay in which he sounded the alarm about the revanchist tide [of the Xi Jinping era], the source and inspiration of which lies with the politics of the Cultural Revolution era.
March, Xu wrote and published ‘China’s Reform Policies in the Context of the Global System’ in which he discussed globalisation and reaffirmed the positive direction that China and its civilisation should take.
July, Xu wrote and published ‘Imminent Fears, Immediate Hopes’, an essay in which he detailed the retrograde policies of the authorities, explained the reasons for widespread public confusion and advanced a number of policy suggestions that led to this work garnering widespread public attention.
November, he revised for publication ‘Humble Recognition, Boundless Possibility’, an essay written to commemorate the inauguration of policies that would become known as the ‘Economic Reforms and Open Door’ in December 1978. In this essay, Xu revisited the significance of those policies in the context of [post-1860s] modern Chinese history, cultural change and global geopolitics.
[Also around this time, Xu Zhangrun wrote ‘And Teachers, Then? They Just Do Their Thing!’, see China Heritage, 10 November 2018, and ‘To Summon a Wandering Soul’, China Heritage, 28 November 2018, written to protest the silencing of his voice in China and to warn of the dangers of Mao-era politics.]
December, Xu wrote and published ‘The Five Campaigns of Liberalism’, which covered modern history and political civilisation while advancing a liberal thinker’s interpretation of China’s present situation in the context of the global system.
January, Xu wrote and published ‘China’s Red Empire’ in which he analysed the concept of empire, discussed the idea of the cycles of political legality and the question of long-term political legitimacy. This work advocates the idea that the Chinese people deserve a republic in which freedom can truly be enjoyed by all.
March, Xu was suspended by Tsinghua University and banned from further scholastic research. [See: Chris Buckley, ‘A Chinese Law Professor Criticized Xi. Now He’s Been Suspended’, New York Times, 26 March 2019; Ian Johnson, ‘A Specter Is Haunting Xi’s China: Mr. Democracy’, NYR Daily, 19 April 2019; and, Mimi Lau and Jun Mai, ‘We must carry on’: Chinese government critic and liberal icon Xu Zhangrun vows to keep saying ‘what needs to be said’, South China Morning Post, 28 April 2019]
[March, even though he had been notified that he was under formal investigation for his writings, Xu published an essay that appeared in China Heritage as ‘ ‘I Will Not Submit, I Will Not Be Cowed’.
[From March, essays, songs, poems and petitions supporting Xu Zhangrun appeared. For translations of these, see ‘Xu Zhangrun vs. Tsinghua University — Voices of Protest & Resistance’ in the ‘Xu Zhangrun Archive’ of China Heritage.
[April, Xu and Guo Yuhua spoke to Voice of America about ‘The Death of the Tsinghua Spirit’, YouTube, 29 April 2019.
[June, Xu published two books in Hong Kong. For details, see ‘The Case for Humanity Over Bastardry’, China Heritage, 10 July 2019. Making a Case for Humanity Over Banditry 《人間不是匪幫》, published by Oxford University Press, is a selection of commentaries, essays, reviews and memoirs written between September 2012 and February 2019. The second work, published by Hong Kong City University Press, was Law: Today & Yesterday — Personal Reflections on Legal Thought and Civilisation 《法意今古—— 一個基於私人經歷的法理思考與文明敍事》]
The Gengzi Year of 2020
In this year Xu Zhangrun has continued his ‘rebellion through writing’. He has remained resolved to advance a critique of the Powers That Be and he has reiterated his call for substantive political reform in China.
In January, he wrote ‘When Fury Overcomes Fear’, published online in early February. Divided into eight sections, this essay excoriated Xi Jinping’s misrule and identified the causes and extent of the deteriorating situation in China. He declared that the clock was ticking and that the countdown to China moving towards constitutional rule had begun.
May, Xu wrote and published ‘China, a Lone Ship of State on the Vast Ocean of Global Civilisation — the coronavirus pandemic and the political and civilisational prospects for the world system’ in which he analysed what the coronavirus epidemic had revealed about China and called on the nation to continue its socio-political evolution in a manner in keeping with the tide of global affairs since ‘only by admitting the truth of what really happened [in Wuhan] and taking responsibility could China enjoy genuine political legitimacy’.
[21 May, ‘Remonstrating with Beijing — Xu Zhangrun’s Advice to China’s National People’s Congress, 21 May 2020’, China Heritage, 21 May 2020
[4 June, ‘In Memoriam — Shrouds of Ice on a River Incarnadine’, China Heritage, 4 June 2020.
[June, banned from being published by Hong Kong City University Press, a collection of Xu’s major polemical works was published under the title China’s Ongoing Crisis — Six Chapters from the Wuxu Year of the Dog 《戊戌六章》 in New York. See: ‘Six Chapters — One Hundred and Twenty Years’, China Heritage.]
Two months later, at the height of summer, Xu Zhangrun’s fortunes suffered a series of new blows:
6 July, Xu was suddenly detained by the authorities on suspicion of having ‘solicited prostitutes’. Civilised people the world over were stunned by this news and voices of protest rang out. [See: ‘無可奈何 — So It Goes’, China Heritage, 6 July 2020]
9 July, after having been stripped of his role as teacher and academic researcher by Tsinghua University sixteen months earlier, Xu was now formally dismissed from his job and also deprived of accreditation as a teacher [making him unemployable at any Chinese educational institution].
12 July, although Xu was allowed to return home, he was still subjected to constant surveillance. [See: ‘Xu Zhangrun & China’s Former People’, China Heritage, 13 July 2020]
19 July, Xu declared that he would survive by writing and he called on the 500 or so Tsinghua graduates who had put together a fund to support the unemployed scholar to use the money to make a charitable donation to those affected by the floods that had recently been devastating the country. [See: ‘Responding to a Gesture of Support — Xu Zhangrun’, China Heritage, 19 July 2020]
26 July, after having been under house arrest for two weeks, Xu was now able to go out and meet up with friends.
27 July, Xu’s WeChat account was suspended, yet again.
28 July, Xu met with two Beijing-based lawyers and signed a power of attorney, engaging them to lodge a formal appeal with the police regarding the administrative ruling in his case or, if circumstances allowed, to pursue legal redress. [See: Christian Shepherd, ‘Fired Chinese professor defies party with lawsuit against police’, The Financial Times, 29 July 2020]
7 August, Xu received a letter from Harvard University expressing sympathy for his plight and offering him a research affiliation.
13 August, the Fairbank Center for Chinese Studies at Harvard University issued a formal letter of invitation to Xu Zhangrun [to be an associate in research for a period of twelve months from the beginning of July 2020 to the end of June 2021]. In anticipation of this, and before Xu could receive the formal notification from Harvard, the authorities (that is, the internal national security arm of the Ministry of Public Security) notified him that he had been stripped of four basic rights, thereby forbidding him from leaving Beijing, traveling overseas, accepting media interviews or accepting any financial support.
19 August, now in receipt of the Harvard invitation, Xu was notified that Tsinghua University had formally terminated his employment; henceforth he would be classified as ‘unemployed personnel’. [See: ‘A Letter to the Fairbank Center for Chinese Studies at Harvard University’, China Heritage, 19 August 2020, reprinted below]
A Record of Resilience
It is said that you can only accurately assess a person’s life after they are dead and buried. Xu Zhangrun is still at the height of his powers and it is far too early to advance such a ‘posthumous evaluation’. A definitive evaluation of him and his work must wait. However, we already do know the following about him:
- he is a professor who has been stripped of the right to teach;
- he is a scholar who has been denied the right to pursue his research;
- he is an intellectual whose voice has been repeatedly stifled;
- he is a Chinese citizen who has now been deprived of the right to make a living; and,
- he is someone who has had his basic freedom of movement curtailed.
Along with all of these strictures and impositions he is also forbidden from receiving any financial support.
It is the 25th of August 2020. According to the traditional Chinese calendar it is the mid-summer of the fourth Gengzi Year in modern China’s history. I am writing these words in Washington, the capital of the Land of the Free on the other side of the Pacific Ocean and far from China. Today I will broadcast these words in a program devoted to the story of Xu Zhangrun titled: ‘Let the Record Show’. My recorded voice and the accompanying text of the program are my way of formally documenting what has taken place. It is my record of the fact that officials of China’s party-state have:
- deprived him of the freedom of expression;
- strangled his scholastic endeavours,
- blocked avenues of free movement;
- defamed his character; and,
- choked his livelihood.
I offer this account of his circumstances as material for the consideration of future generations. I hope thereby to illustrate the outrageously criminal behavior perpetrated by the Chinese state. It is further evidence of the bullying nature of its autocracy, an added indictment of the evil perpetrated by the scrofulous bureaucratic power holders, and proof positive of the vile and obsequious complicity of China’s educational institutions in the process of his persecution.
What kind of person is Xu Zhangrun, a man subjected to such remorseless attention? His efforts are nothing less than an oblation to this disastrous Gengzi Year. He is a martyr sacrificing himself for the cause of justice and decency in China.
Below I read out the letter that Xu Zhangrun wrote to Harvard University in acknowledgement of the invitation extended to him. This is not merely a letter written in response to his appointment as an Associate in Research [at the Fairbank Center for Chinese Studies], it is also a statement of moral purpose, a further expression of an unyielding commitment to his cause:
A Letter of Thanks
19 August 2020
My Dear Friends at Harvard University,
It was with heartfelt delight that I recently received your formal invitation to become an Associate in Research at the Fairbank Center for Chinese Studies at Harvard University.
For over sixty years, the Fairbank Center has been home to the pursuit of scholarship that has constantly added to a tradition of learning, one enhanced over the generations and that has accumulated thereby a formidable record of acumen and academic knowledge, the depth and breadth of which all who know you are witness. You are truly a global center for the study of Chinese, China and Sinology. [Note: 漢學 Hàn xué, both ‘the study of things Chinese’ and the tradition of learning the origins of which date back over the millennia, also a term for ‘Sinology’].
To receive this invitation at this moment, a fraught juncture in my life, is deeply meaningful. For me, your gesture and the spirit of fellowship that it represents has dissolved in an instant the great physical distance separating us. Now, thus drawn into your presence, as true comrades in heart and mind, I must share my feelings of gratitude and felicity.
For me, status as an Associate in Research at the Fairbank Center [which is not a salaried position, or one with fixed duties] is for me actually a substantive appointment, one that excites my core interests. This invitation is one that further encourages me to read, something that is a beloved pursuit fueling my continued intellectual journey, and affirms my obsession with writing, an activity that gives form to my mental labours. This appointment resonates with my vocation, one that Confucius described as being the ‘scholar attuned to the Way’. For I am one of those whose heart-mind dwells on the cavalcade of worldly events while also being someone who seeks to discern a deeper meaning and a moral order in the world. In this enterprise, truly, there is no schism between China and the West.
An appointment as an Associate in Research at the Fairbank Centre may be a relationship in name only. Even though this honour is not burdened either with duties imposed by an emolument or the need for me to exercise my pedagogical ability, nonetheless, it engages directly with the things of greatest consequence — be they related to kith and kin, or those that touch on the life-pulse of the nation itself. They are, after all, matters that both reflect and excite our shared humanity. And it is in the pursuit of these concerns — from the particular and the personal to the social and the political — that a scholar is inspired to rise daily at an early hour and forgo sustenance until late at night, devoting their time instead to reading and their studies. For the learned such a discipline pertains as much today as it did of yore. Having said all of this, however, I would emphasise once more that I recognise your generosity of spirit in extending this invitation to me. So, allow me to give voice to my heartfelt thrill once more, for your gesture is one of exemplary significance; it is freighted with undeniable symbolic weight. After all, everyone who is aware of the vicissitudes that have led to this moment, and to which this invitation also addresses itself, share a sense of outrage.
The exemplary significance of this invitation relates directly to indomitable individuals with unbending character, as well as to those who would truly champion ‘an independent spirit and intellectual freedom’. [Note: a famous expression formulated by the Tsinghua University historian Chen Yinque when he wrote an epitaph to celebrate his friend and colleague Wang Guowei following the latter’s death in 1927]. After all, if one lacks an independent spirit there is little chance that you can ever ‘break free of the shackles of mundane ideologies’. [Note: Another quotation from Chen Yinque that, at the time, referred to various political dogmas and intellectual vested interests.] Without intellectual freedom how can scholars possibly traverse the boundless realm of the mind without impediment?
For it is through Independence and Freedom alone that we mere flesh-bound mortals, individuals inured to this commonplace life in a secular world, can hope to aspire to the sublime. And it is in that we may pursue both plenitude and advancement, even as we live in a tireless diurnal reality calibrated by the rising sun and the waning moon. So then we strive, no matter how hesitant our step or how inconsistent the passage forward may prove to be.
It is here, yes, in the here and now, that those who are devoted to the life of the mind can follow The Way of Learning and resist thereby the blandishments of power. They can offer some worthy model of rectitude to those countless others who would seek it, and even have the courage to persist no matter ‘that there is a sharpened sword above one’s head, hanging there by the thinnest simple thread.’ And so I too will persist and refuse to submit and in this truly intersect with eternity.
For me, your invitation is also freighted with symbolism, for it demonstrates that our words, our deeds, and our heart-minds as well, are hereby linked in a glittering skein of intellectual mutuality. For scholarship is both a universal value and a shared bond, one forged in the pursuit of the public good. I have dedicated myself to studying the meaning and significance of Law. It is an effort aimed at clarifying the principles of justice. In devoting myself to this end, I have lived and breathed the Law as an academic discipline for four decades. In the process, I have also focussed on instructing others without respite; in the pursuit of Truth in the name of Law, I advocate the study of justice. Such sentiments are shared by scholars everywhere and they underpin a jointly held commitment to the freedom of thought.
Actually, we — that is, you, my colleagues, and me — exist together in the Kingdom of the Spirit. That is where we spend our days in toil, as if in intellectual servitude. It is there, too, that our ties of fellowship are sustained and advanced in the give-and-take of inspiration. We share our ideas in the common pursuit of Truth and encourage each other to follow The Way [of scholarship, learning and meaning]. That is why, even as I may be on the path to the Yellow Springs [that is, the underworld, or death], I know that in spirit my arm is linked in yours and that our hearts touch. On that journey I will never feel alone.
Moreover, I am unwavering in the belief that, even though justice may be long delayed, it cannot forever be denied. By the same token, I know you must be ready to lose your head if that dawn is to come. Be the days dark, we share this common bond, and the devotion to knowledge in our heart-minds lights the way ahead. Our spirits, undaunted, call out to that which is yet to come. Though we weather gales and storms, the crow of the dawn rooster beckons. Harrowing may be the path, yet majestic is our progress.
When contemplating the state of education in my homeland today, I am nostalgically awed by an enterprise that did once boast of a tradition both ancient and majestic. Coruscating in its brilliance, heretofore it enjoyed a heritage that reflected true grandeur. Yet, in modern times [from the nineteenth century], Chinese education lost its way and fell into desuetude. Over time, there came to be a precious few people who were sincerely inspired by the undeniable achievements of others and, determined to catch up, they forged a way ahead with singular resolution.
Then, tragically, more latterly [in the mid-twentieth century with the ideological contestation between the Nationalist Party and the Communist Party], and after having been subjected to injurious blows both from the left and from the right, unthinkingly, unimaginably, China’s modern universities, just like China itself, ended up becoming a fertile ground for the experiments of the engineers of modern-day ‘Legalist Fascist Stalinism’ [that is during the Mao era, 1949-1978]. [Note: ‘Legalistic-Fascist-Stalinism’ 法日斯 Fǎ-Rì-Sī is a formulation that Professor Xu uses to describe the Chinese party-state’s command-and-control ideology that is ‘cobbled together from strains of traditional harsh Chinese Legalist thought 法 (中式法家思想), wedded to an admix of the Leninist-Stalinist interpretation of Marxism 斯 (斯大林主義) along with a “Germano-Aryan” form of fascism 日 (日耳曼法西斯主義).’] China allowed itself to fall prey once more to an Other, this time becoming little more than a colony under the sway of Soviet-style misrule. With the country thus subjugated, its multitudes ended up as hostages who served the state as nothing more than value-generating pawns. For all intents and purposes, The People [despite claims made by the Communist propaganda-state that it alone represented ‘The People’ of China] disappeared and the sovereign rights of the nation were evacuated by an autocrat who occupied centre stage. What was left in the stead of actual, living individuals were but reams of statistics and data about taxable units. And so it came to pass that totalitarianism overwhelmed everything, and a government steeped in violence held sway over a nation that it ruled with lies.
China’s educational culture was profoundly tainted by their barbarism, and the livelihoods of the people were regarded as nothing more than dust and ashes. In those decades, tens of millions of souls perished, countless were those who starved in their very homes while the numbers of those struggled to death in their own homeland were beyond calculation. The heavens responded to the outrage of the people with a fury of its own. Even now, one can only contemplate that history in muted horror.
Later still, those so-called ‘Economic Reform and Open Door Policies’ actually showed that the Communists were, to an extent, willing to admit the errors of the past and act on that awareness in a way that recognised undeniable reality. There was a fitful move to ‘humbly recognise and pay respects’ [to other nations, societies and economies that were more advanced and civilised] and, gradually, there was a return to a meaningful path of development. It was forced upon them, and it was only because of it that we were all finally able to enjoy a period of relative peace and prosperity. [Note: See ‘Humble Recognition, Boundless Possibility — Part I’, China Heritage, 31 January 2019; and,‘The State of a Civilisation — Humble Recognition, Boundless Possibility, Part II’, China Heritage, 8 March 2019.]
The unfortunate truth, however, is that, while The Rivers and Mountains [of China] may have passed into the hands of new rulers [after Mao’s death], the nature of its totalitarianism remained obdurate and resistant to substantive reform. The self-preservation embedded in the structures of this narcissistic polity means that a peaceful political transformation has proved to be impossible. When China once more, finally, confronted the pressing need to make one truly significant effort to become a modern nation [that built on a socio-political and economic process dating from the Self-strengthening Movement of the 1860-70s], a deep-seated inertia reasserted itself. The smoldering embers of autocratic ambition have been reignited, for [the Powers That Be, that is Xi Jinping et al] are obsessed with their proprietary claims over ‘The Rivers & Mountains’ [that is, the geopolitical and numinous territory of China. See ‘Ruling The Rivers & Mountains’, China Heritage, 8 August 2018] and they have pitted themselves yet again against the universal valency of modern civilisation. In their arrogance they reject out of hand the idea that the People should enjoy true sovereignty, just as they deny that a nation should be founded on the principles of a true republic [that is, one based on constitutional democracy of the kind advocated when the Republic of China was founded in 1912, rather than on a ‘people’s democratic dictatorship’ of the kind imposed by the Communist Party from the 1950s]. For eight long years [since Xi Jinping’s rise to power in late 2012], their system has doggedly protected an outmoded and flawed totalitarianism and they have pursued policies that amount to a retreat into the past. Yet again, the rulers have set China and all that it can promise in stark opposition to the kind of universally recognised form of politics based on what I have repeatedly called ‘constitutional democracy reflective of a substantive people’s republic’.
In the process, with their vainglorious gestures they have been frittering away the immense stores of wealth accumulated as a result of the blood, sweat and tears of countless Chinese [during the decades of the Economic Reform and Open Door policies initiated in 1978]. [Note: for Professor Xu’s critique of this profligacy, see ‘Imminent Fears, Immediate Hopes — a Beijing Jeremiad’ 我們當下的恐懼與期待, China Heritage, 1 August 2018.] Today, we are witnessing the shocking possibility that the hard-won achievements of generations of my fellow Chinese may well be undone overnight. If the fate of the nation is thus imperiled, once more will the livelihood of everyday people be at grave risk. If you need any evidence of the looming danger, witness what is happening right now!
Ah, You Communists are so arrogantly confident that you possess a monopoly over the truth. But if that is really the case, why are you so afraid of mothers and children even opening their mouths? And why are you unsettled by the festive laughter of everyday men and women?
Long ago you occupied all of the prime real estate in our country, still you are not satisfied and you constantly issue new orders for the forced relocation of people and demolitions [to make way for your projects]. [Note: see 許章潤, ‘踐踏斯文必驅致一邪魅人間’, 25 June 2020.] Why can’t you tolerate women who truly wish to celebrate their femininity, or the raucous bustle in the cities? Why are you so jealous of the fact that the common people can finally afford the modest indulgences of the good life?
You hold the power of life and death over others; your will and whims decided who will flourish and who will come undone. That’s why, by all rights, you have no good reason to be so fearful of the fresh flowers placed on new graves, or the sorrowful tears of widows.
The very skies and earth, why, the air itself — why, you claim dominion over them all! Your power courses through the land with impunity and in your miscreant behaviour you evince no heartfelt trepidation, even when confronted by punishing calamities: be it the surging floodwaters or the plague that has scarred our land. [Note: Here the writer is referring to the calamities of 2020.]
This reflects a truth that has been unchanged from the days when you first came into being: you are contemptuous of everything civilised and decent; you are determined to befoul whatsoever is beautiful in humanity; you cannot tolerate the fact that the people just want a peaceful and happy existence. Even less do you have any real notion of the pleasures and delights of normal existence, for you worship at the altar of crude violence. In your pursuit of your evil calculations you cleave to the ingrained habits of fraudulence and treachery. Why? Simple: because really you are indeed afraid, and you are scared of everything. Why, you are even unsettled by yourselves! That’s because you know all too well that the only thing that can be detected in your empty hearts is the obsidian gloom of the jail house.
And that is why you have been unbending in your intention. It is why you revel in the fact that it is within your grasp and in your power to:
- Strip me of my calling as a teacher;
- Deny me access to a livelihood;
- Sever the lineage of my scholarship;
- Waylay me on my intellectual journey;
- Besmirch and insult my character; and,
- Restrict my freedom of movement.
On top of all of that, I know only too well that you may go so far as to throw me into jail. You may even choose to snuff out my life.
Yet, despite your best efforts, you will never be able to silence all of the poets who would speak of the desolate beauty of autumn, nor can you ever clamp down on the enticing yearnings of country maids. Human beings cannot be prevented from craving the world of sensation. This is more true now than ever before, since the People may chose to cast aside their fear. They have learned to delight in the enticing possibilities of nature and they observed the immutable cycles of change. [Note: this is a reference to the writer’s condemnation of Xi Jinping’s mishandling of the coronavirus in January-February 2020. See: ‘When Fury Overcomes Fear’, China Heritage, 24 February 2020.]
Oh, Heavens Above, are you asking me? That’s right, I am addressing that Greater Principle of Life: the mists rise and swirl around the distant mountains, yet the zephyr wind of the west swells still, for I am alive, I AM STILL ALIVE! I am sustained by that selfsame source understood by people the world over: an unyielding faith in Dignity and Freedom. For these form the eternal gospel that stirs in the hearts of all humankind; it is the good news that reflects the values that make us, frail humans though we be, what we are!
The ineffable beauty of this world remains yet, for do you not still see the sweet, sorrowful hurt in humble towns, something that no force should be allowed to sully? Even though this great land is reduced to silence once more, in the depths of night Lady Meng Jiang [whose bitter tears breached the Great Wall built by the despotic First Emperor of Qin, to whom both Mao and Xi Jinping have been compared] is preparing herself to sally forth, for flurries of snow are gathering at the foot of the Great Wall.
I appeal to that Higher Power, that Greater Principle of Life, above: look down upon this world of ours, observe this realm of wondrous variety. How can the unimpeded rampage of these ‘abhuman dementors’ be tolerated?
Dear friends, allow me once more to express my gratitude to Harvard University!
19 August 2020
— from ‘A Letter to the Fairbank Center for Chinese Studies
at Harvard University’, China Heritage, 19 August 2020
‘Xu Zhangrun: Let the Record Show’ is produced as part of Washington Notes, a series broadcast on air and via YouTube by Radio Free Asia. I am your host and my name is Bei Ming. Thank you for listening and reading.
- 北明, ‘專欄|華盛頓手記：立此存照許章潤’, 《自由亞洲電台》, 2020年8月25日