Guo Yuhua (郭於華, 1956-) is a prominent scholar in the Sociology Department of Tsinghua University. She was one of the first people to speak out in protest against the overt official persecution of her colleague Xu Zhangrun 許章潤, a professor of law at Tsinghua, from March 2019. In her essay, translated as ‘J’accuse, Tsinghua University!’ (China Heritage, 27 March 2019), she wrote:
… you can be as mediocre as you want, you can even be guilty of mistakes: but you cannot and should not do evil! I appeal to you to be respectful of basic morality and ‘aim your gun one inch higher’. [A reference to a popular story circulating in China related to the trial of a soldier who was accused of murder following the fall of the Berlin Wall. The soldier said that he had only shot people climbing the wall because he had been ordered to do so. The lawyer asked: ‘Couldn’t you simply have aimed one inch higher?]
Now with the gun aimed at everyone who dares to speak out during the coronavirus epidemic since December 2019, Guo Yuhua refuses to be silenced.
In the following interview, conducted by Radio Free Asia and published on 3 March 2020, Guo Yuhua addresses the coronavirus epidemic in the context of China’s systemic limitations. She addresses her comments to the fundamental question of intrinsic human worth and the value of the individual, a perennial issue throughout modern Chinese history. In fact, these have been topics of concern to China’s Communists, and their opponents, since the Yan’an Rectification Campaign of the early 1940s (see ‘Ruling The Rivers & Mountains’, China Heritage, 8 August 2018) and were again taken up by Mao and his theoreticians in the early 1950s. The question of humanism and human value, and concomitant issues like human rights, were also a focus of the Anti-Spiritual Pollution Campaign of 1983-1984 (see ‘Spiritual Pollution Thirty Years On’, The China Story, 17 November 2013), and a prelude to the crushing of the mass protests of 1989. The Communist Party’s view of human worth, particularly its usefulness in achieving and maintaining political power, has been consistently, and narrowly, utilitarian and inhumane, as well as anti-humanist. As Guo Yuhua forcefully points out below, it remains so to this day.
— Geremie R. Barmé
Editor, China Heritage
6 March 2020
Guo Yuhua, ‘The Shadow of “Communist Civilization”
— An Interview with Gongshiwang (Consensus Net) ’, trans. David Ownby and Joshua Fogel, Reading the China Dream
- Guo Yuhua, ‘Original Intentions Start with the People [8 December 2017]’, trans. David Ownby, Reading the China Dream
- ‘Guo Yuhua: China’s Suffering Class’, China Channel, 15 March 2020
- Ian Johnson, ‘Ruling Through Ritual’: An Interview with Guo Yuhua, New York Review of Books, 18 June 2018
- Xu Zhangrun and Guo Yuhua speak to Voice of America 美國之音 about ‘The Death of the Tsinghua Spirit’, YouTube, 29 April 2019
- Various Hands, ‘Anniversaries New & Old in 2019 — Remembering 5.4, Accounting for 4.28’, China Heritage, 4 May 2019
- Geremie R. Barmé, ‘Spiritual Pollution Thirty Years On’, The China Story, 17 November 2013
- Xu Zhangrun, ‘Viral Alarm: When Fury Overcomes Fear’, trans. Geremie R. Barmé, ChinaFile, 10 February 2020
- ‘2019-nCoV — A Teaching Moment, Spring Term 2020’, China Heritage, 12 February 2020
- William H. Overholt, ‘After the coronavirus, can Chinese politics ever be the same?’, The Inside Story, 21 February 2020
- Xu Zhiyong, ‘Dear Chairman Xi, It’s Time for You to Go’, trans. Geremie R. Barmé, ChinaFile, 26 February 2020
- Geremie R. Barmé, ‘China’s Coronavirus Crisis Is Just Beginning — Xi Jinping’s handling of the epidemic is reviving political dissent’, The New York Times, 3 March 2020 (Chinese version: ‘中国的疫情危机才刚刚开始’, 4 March 2020)
- Stephen Lee Meyers, ‘China Pushes Back as Coronavirus Crisis Damages Its Image’, The New York Times, 6 March 2020
- Michelle Goldberg, ‘Trump’s Calamitous Coronavirus Response’, The New York Times, 6 March 2020
The ultimate concern of China’s polity today and that of its highest leader is to preserve at all costs the privileged position of the Communist Party and to maintain ruthlessly its hold on power. What they dub “The Broad Masses of People” are nothing more than a taxable unit, a value-bearing cipher in a metrics-based system of social management that is geared towards stability maintenance. “The People” is a rubric that describes the price everyone has to pay to prop up the existing system. We are funding the countless locusts—large and small—whose survival is supported by a totalitarian system.
— Xu Zhangrun, ‘Viral Alarm: When Fury Overcomes Fear’,
trans. G.R. Barmé, ChinaFile, 10 February 2020
The Political Manipulation of People is
More Toxic Than Any Virus
Guo Yuhua 郭於華 Interviewed by
Zheng Chongsheng 鄭崇生 of Radio Free Asia
Translated by Geremie R. Barmé
A topic of heated discussion on Chinese-language social media was sparked by a report on Monday about how a number of medical professionals, chief among them being Zhong Nanshan, the nation’s most famous epidemiologist, had demonstrated their loyalty by taking the oath to be ‘fast-tracked’ into the Communist Party [called ‘火線入黨’, literally ‘fire-wired Party induction’; see Xinhua News Agency, ‘鐘南山領誓 火線入黨’].
In an interview with Radio Free Asia, Professor Guo Yuhua of the Sociology Department of Tsinghua University cuts to the quick: ‘The political manipulation of people is more toxic than any virus’. This observation was made during a conversation between Professor Guo and our reporter Zheng Chongsheng.
Radio Free Asia: How should we regard those people who claim that even as insiders of the system they still try to speak out, as is the case with Zhong Nanshan?
Guo Yuhua: The space for professionals to speak out within the system as it presently exists is extremely limited. The constraints imposed exist to prevent people from telling the truth; the pressure people are under is tremendous. Having said that, I find it incomprehensible that anyone would actually want to join the Communist Party. Do they reason with themselves that they won’t be able to speak out unless they are in the Party? Can’t you express your professional opinion as an individual? I simply don’t get it. Frankly, I’m dumbfounded.
Q: Do you think what the people of China really need right now, a moment dubbed [by the propagandists] a ‘Whole-of-Nation War on the Epidemic’, is for prominent medical professionals led by Zhong Nanshan to swear allegiance to the Communist Party?
A: Of course, there’s no need; in fact, it will have the opposite of the desired effect or, worse, it might aid and abet [the Party’s] efforts to hide the truth. You [that is the party-state] employ all the means at your disposal to impose a politics of ‘Great Unity’ [大一統, an ancient term implying politically imposed homogeneity] in every sphere, but in reality you can’t manage to do it. You want to frustrate the attempts of civilian actors to volunteer independent support [to those dealing with the epidemic] while pursuing your unified command-and-control approach to the situation, but you simply cannot control everything so you end up exacerbating what is already a man-made disaster. That’s why we can observe that this kind of system and the way it thinks about the world as a whole is based on an approach that regards people as nothing more than utilitarian objects [or political tools; that is, as merely the means to an end], something to be subjected to management and control. Such a thing is in and of itself a kind of virus; it’s a governance system that is no less deadly than the coronavirus itself. Personally, I think it’s even more toxic.
Treating People Like Mere Tools
Creates Society-wide Tensions
Q: Even before the outbreak of the coronavirus, the doctor-patient relationship in China was tense. Can you tell us why that was the case? How do you think the situation will change as a result of this epidemic?
A: In my opinion, in the final analysis, all of China’s problems have to do with a political system that simply does not treat people as human beings [that is, with basic, inherent rights]. That’s the backdrop to everything; it’s what is behind the systemic problems in the medical industry as well; fundamentally, it’s not about the ethical standards or competence of the medical professionals.
Now that you [the state] need them [medical professionals] they are celebrated as ‘heroes’ and ‘angels’, but after this epidemic has passed, just as was the case with the SARS outbreak, will you do anything to compensate them? Do you have a proper plan? Then, when another problem arises, again you’ll expect them to clean up your mess and you’ll treat them as nothing more than cannon fodder.
But that’s not just true of medicos, in China the power holders regard everyone, including academics and teachers like me, as nothing more than pliant tools. We are simply not thought of as individual human beings.
What are human beings? They have natural rights; they are free. Why should I sacrifice myself for you? That’s right — we shouldn’t forget that the state, your state, exists to serve its citizens and the public. We the people are not supposed to be your servants. We are the ones paying for you, and you should be working on our behalf. But the fact of the matter is that the exact opposite is true.
Q: Don’t they all say [mouthing a famous line from Mao] ‘Serve the People’?
A: Of course, and doesn’t it sound good. In practice that’s not the case at all!
Technology Aids and Abets Totalitarian Rule
Guo Yuhua Sees No Hope for Reform
Q: If the people are truly awakened [to the situation] might they not pressure the system to reform itself? Are you still hopeful?
A: I’ve never entertained such hopes. Now I’m even less hopeful than ever. Think about it: in the first place, we are talking about [the party-state enjoying] unfettered power; they can do whatever they please, involve themselves in any and everything that they might wish to. They can interfere with the workings of the market, with the activities of professionals, with education. They can interfere in absolutely everything. But, when problems arise, do they ever accept any responsibility? Of course they don’t take the blame.
Given that the system is so powerful that it can maintain a tight rein on absolutely everything while never feeling constrained to accept responsibility for any of its mistakes, do you think I am hopeful that it might suddenly become motivated to reform itself? It doesn’t want to give up anything and it will never relinquish power. This is what we have: an extreme version of a 360-degree autocracy.
Moreover, today it has everything on its side, including the latest in high-tech ways and means. This equips it to do things far beyond anything anyone outside the system might be able to imagine. That’s why I’m both furious and desperate — I simply can’t see any way out whatsoever!
This, then, is the nub of all of China’s problems. The present coronavirus crisis has revealed the true nature of the system from inside and out. The other day, I made an observation in a WeChat group that if, even after all that has happened, people still refuse to see what’s really going on then they’re simply ‘incurable’.
Eighty WeChat Accounts Blocked
Guo Yuhua Remains Fearless as
She Speaks Out on Behalf of Xu Zhangrun
Q: After Xu Zhangrun, your colleague and a professor in the law faculty of Tsinghua, spoke out [on 4 February, see ‘Viral Alarm: When Fury Overcomes Fear’], he was shut down again. Have you been in contact with him recently? What’s his situation?
A: He was barred from teaching [in late 2018] and his professional life — work, taking on research scholars — has been completely destroyed, and that includes his research work. [For details, see ‘Xu Zhangrun vs. Tsinghua University’ in the Xu Zhangrun Archive on this site.] The way he has been treated is absolutely absurd. All he did was write an essay! [See Xu Zhangrun, ‘Imminent Fears, Immediate Hopes — a Beijing Jeremiad’ 我們當下的恐懼與期待, July 2018.] It was not that different from saying a bit too much and it was just an essay, for heaven’s sake. What’s the big deal about someone simply expressing their personal opinion? Or, if you want to think about it from a more professional or legalistic framework: you tell me, according to what particular law do you have the right to persecute this man?
Q: Doesn’t China have a legal system?
A: China is ‘ruled by laws’ 以法治國, it doesn’t, however, enjoy ‘the rule of law’ 依法治國.
From the time of the Magna Carta, even the British monarch was subject to the law. In a modern country [like China] by all rights political power itself should also be subject to the law; the Communist Party should also be beholden to the law. But here it’s different: they are above the law! The law is a tool used to maintain their preeminence and it is deployed to punish the common people. So they do indeed ‘rule by laws’, that is, they employ the law to rule over you. What do you call that?!
Then [over recent weeks, there are those individuals [like Chen Qiushi 陳秋實, Fang Bin 方斌, Li Zehua 李澤華, etcetera] who went to the quarantined zone [of Wuhan] to investigate the on-the-ground situation for themselves. One after another they have all disappeared. What law exactly allows you to refuse a citizen the right to carry out their own investigation? So what if they are reporting independently. Exactly what law forbids that? They’ve all been disappeared and their families have had no news of their whereabouts. What kind of crazy situation is this? The authorities are breaking the law and contravening the constitution!
答：中國就是Rule by law、以法治國，不是rule of law、依法治國。
因為，從英國大憲章開始，就是王在法下。作為一個現代國家，你應該權也必須在法下，你的黨也必須在法下。結果，現在變他們全在法上啊！法就變成他們統治與制裁老百姓的工具啊！他們就是Rule by law，他們拿法律來治你，這叫什麼呀！
Q: Given the case of Xu Zhangrun, and what has befallen him, by speaking out like this aren’t you afraid for yourself?
A: Of course I’m scared! Who wouldn’t be? However, no matter how scared you might be, you can’t let yourself kneel before them, nor can you allow yourself to fall. No matter how scared you might be, you just have to keep standing upright. For me, there’s simply no other choice. Forget all of that stuff about me being a scholar, a professor and a public intellectual. I’m an individual, a normal person, plain and simple, and I want to live like one.
I live in China and I am willing to speak out here. Since they have shut down every other avenue available to me to speak out, I’ll cast aside all concerns. I’ll use whatever means are available to me to make myself heard.
Interviewer: Zheng Chongsheng
Editor: Shen Hua
Online editor: Hong Wei
- 鄭崇生， ‘專訪郭於華：把人當工具的統治方式比病毒更可怕’, 《自由亞洲電台》, 2020年3月3日