Rashomon & Growing Pains at Tsinghua University

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


The following record of the 28 April 2019 protest by Tsinghua University alumni centred at the Wang Guowei Commemorative Stele on campus was written by Yan Huai 閻淮, one of the organisers of the 31 March petition that appealed for the reinstatement of Professor Xu Zhangrun 許章潤, who had been put under investigation by the university for unspecified reasons. Yan’s essay can be read both as an addition (and even as a corrective) to the account offered by Lin Hai 林海, published by China Heritage on 4 May, and as a thoughtful analysis by a writer familiar both with the inner workings of the Communist party-state and the tragic history of protests in China both past and present.


For details about the Wang Guowei Stele 王國維紀念碑 at Tsinghua University, the epitaph engraved on the stele composed by Chen Yinque 陳寅恪 in 1929 and a photographic account of the events of 28 April 2019, see ‘The Two Scholars Who Haunt Tsinghua University’.

As ever, I am grateful to Reader #1 for spotting typographical errors and also for suggesting, with characteristic politesse, some elegant improvements to a rushed and clumsy translation.

— Geremie R. Barmé
Editor, China Heritage
10 May 2019


Related Material:


Yan Huai, Working in and Getting Out of the Central Organisation Department — the other life of a Second Generation Idealist and Member of the Party Gentry, with introductions by Li Rui and Yang Jisheng, Hong Kong: Mirror Publishers, 2017

The Positive Possibilities Revealed by
The Struggle at Tsinghua University


Yan Huai 閻淮


On the Eve of the Tsinghua Commemoration:
Disquiet Occasioned by Xu Zhangrun’s ‘Speech Crime’



25 March 2019: I learn that because of his writings Xu [Zhangrun] has been ‘suspended from all [university related] activities including teaching and research, and a formal investigation into his case has been launched [by the university].’ As this news circulates there is widespread disgruntlement among our group of Tsinghua alumni. To protest against the further punishment of Xu, on 31 March I get together with Sun Nutao, of the Tsinghua Class of 1960 [Sun was a former prominent Red Guard and author of the confessional work A Conscience Interrogated: the psychological odyssey of a Red Guard leader 《良知的拷問 ——  一個清華文革頭頭的心路歷程》 published in 2013], as well as with other Tsinghua alumni from the 1980s, along with friends outside the Tsinghua network to issue an ‘Open Letter Demanding Tsinghua University Reinstate Professor Xu Zhangrun Immediately’. Over the following two weeks some 1000 alumni and other supporters sign this petition. Not only do the authorities fail to correct their treatment of Xu, worse happens when he is prevented from seeking medical treatment overseas and pressure is brought to bear on those who are known to have signed our petition.


14 April: Sun Nutao and I jointly release our ‘Open Letter to Tsinghua President Qiu Yong’ in which we ‘respectfully request that the esteemed president reinstate Xu Zhangrun and immediately bring to an end all attempts to pressure signatories [of the original petition to rescind].’ We could never have expected that our Letter, which we dispatched by express post, would be refused and returned unopened.


Late April: Dissatisfied with this development a group of Tsinghua alumni who had graduated from the university half a was century ago discussed the matter via our WeChat group chat and we collectively decided that on the day of this year’s University Commemoration, slated for 28 April, we would visit the Wang Guowei Commemorative Stele (hereafter simply referred to as ‘the Wang Stele’] on the Tsinghua campus, pay our respects to Wang and recite out loud the encomium written for him by Chen Yinque which is carved as an epitaph on the stele. Through this act we would be carrying on the tradition of extolling ‘an Independent Spirit and a Mind Unfettered’. In concert friends recommended that I officiate at that occasion following which I should hand over our Open Letter with a List of Signatories to the university authorities in person. The consensus was that this would be ‘a peaceful and rational act that would avoid confrontation and, if it did result in people being detained, no resistance would be offered’. On 25 April, I undertook an operation to ‘reconnoitre’ the Wang Stele and the location of the Tsinghua President’s office where I would be handing over our letter.


26 April: On this day, a large barrier encircling the Wang Stele [and grove] is erected in the name of ‘undertaking repairs’.

27 April: I print out three copies of the agreed material and gave two of those copies to other alumni with instructions that if, on the day, I am prevented from carrying out my task then they would act in my stead. That evening a group of outraged alumni decide that our ‘commemorative activity’ should be elevated to become an ‘act of resistance’. We will, nonetheless, maintain our approach as being one that is both pacifist and rational. The recommendation that we spray paint a slogan on the wall [erected around the Wang Stele] is abandoned. However, on the basis of the university motto — ‘Self-Discipline and Social Commitment’ — and in light of the fact that the 108th anniversary of the founding of the university was the 108th such occasion [茶壽 chá shòu: an elegant interpretation of the make-up of the character ‘茶’ chá argues that it can be interpreted as representing a series of numbers the total of which is 108], we put our heads together and come up with our own slogan: ‘Tsinghua at 108 Years: A Self-made Barrier Against Any Independent Spirit; So Thick That No Mind Remains Unfettered’ [自牆不吸獨立精神,厚得再無自由思想, a satirical recasting of the Tsinghua University motto: 自強不息,厚德載物]. Because I have no printer in my rented accommodation, I appeal to someone in our WeChat group to undertake that task. (This leads to the incident described below.)




A Day of Commemoration:
Reasoned Resistance, Positive Reinforcement



10:00 am, 28 April 2019: I arrange to join Lin [Hai] and Jiang [Nanfeng] and purchase flowers at the Tsinghua florist.

10:15: As we were walking in the direction of the Wang Stele we unexpectedly received an urgent phone call from Sun Nutao, who was in Hangzhou, appealing for help. It turns out that Classmate Fan, an alumnus of Peking University, had given Classmate Gao [Xueyun] printed copies of the Couplet which Gao has proceeded to stick up on the Blue Wall when she was detained by plainclothes security men and taken to Lecture Hall #1. At this juncture, we encounter Classmate Sun and asked him to help.

10:25: When I reached the Wang Stele I caught sight of Sun Zhe, who was in the same year and class as me. (He stayed on at Tsinghua after graduating and, over the years, had risen to become the deputy head of the propaganda department of the university Party Committee. Former classmates spoke of him highly.) So I ask him to give me a hand in rescuing Gao and shortly thereafter he returns with Classmate Gao who has been released as a result of the good offices of Classmate Sun. Concerned that Sun Zhe might be caught up in all of this I suggest that he leave, but he replies that he’d rather stay to lend me a hand in keeping the peace. I’m taken aback.


10:30 am: A few dozen alumni and non-Tsinghua members of the Tsinghua Chat Group start turning up. They go over to greet professors Xu Zhangrun and Guo Yuhua [who are the first to be there]. The Men in Black guarding the small opening in the Blue Wall (there are indeed workers using compactors to ram the earth [prior to paving] inside the enclosure, but the fencing had an opening for easy access) withdraw to a safe distance and they take up a position with a dozen or so of their comrades who have cameras and other equipment. They are now replaced by a few Student Volunteers who seem unsure of how and why they are to guard the opening in the Blue Wall.

After getting Sun Zhe to negotiate with the Student Volunteers we form a queue and in an orderly fashion we enter the enclosed area via that small opening. Inside we bow, pay our respects and leave our floral tributes at a place where, long before there were Grand Buildings at Tsinghua, there was Grand Master Wang — to whom that stele was dedicated — and Grand Master Chen, whose epitaph for Wang was inscribed on the stele. Along with the flowers we offer our homage. At this point we ask Sun Zhe to secure an agreement from the workers to stop their earth-ramming work so that we can do all of this in a quiet and solemn environment.


10:40 am: After we reemerge [from the Blue Wall enclosing the Wang Stele] I distribute the printed copies of the saying [from Chen Yinque’s epitaph for Wang] ‘An Independent Spirit and a Mind Unfettered’ as well as the Poetic Couplet so they can affix them to all sides of the Big Wall with sticky tape. For my part, I put up copies of our two Open Letters at the small opening to the enclosure.

At this point a young fellow dressed in red pulls down the Open Letters and, when I go to remonstrate with him he claims that he just wanted to read them. I respond that he could just as well read them on the wall, but he ignores me. I ask Sun Zhe to get him to stick the Letters back up on the wall. While all of this is going on professors Xu and Guo are giving short media interviews [See, for example, Xu Zhangrun and Guo Yuhua speaking to Voice of America 美國之音 about ‘The Death of the Tsinghua Spirit’, YouTube, 29 April 2019]. After this we take a group photograph (Sun Zhe is on the extreme right-hand side of the first row of people). I read out Chen Yinque’s epitaph (we had originally arranged for a male-female team to do this, but they had been unable to make it) [for the Chinese text of the epitaph, and a translation, see here]. After that we all recite in full voice the words ‘An Independent Spirit and a Mind Unfettered’ and thereby peacefully conclude our act of resistance.


The gathered host outside the barriers erected at the Wang Guowei Stele, 28 April 2019


Dialogue: Objecting in Person
Presenting Our Petitions



10:55 am: I ask Sun Zhe to deliver the envelop containing our two Open Letters and the list of 1000 signatories to the office of Tsinghua’s president. I tell him that I have arranged to meet other university leaders at the Tsinghua Alumni Association at exactly 11:00am and that I would also be handing them a copy of the same material. Sun Zhe tells me that he’ll accompany me to the Alumni Association and ensure that they will deliver the material to [Tsinghua president] Qiu Yong.


11:00 am: Sun Zhe takes me and Lin Hai — a canny and fearless fellow — to the Alumni Association where we are offered tea by Tang Jie, the association’s secretary. Sun Zhe shakes hands and bids us farewell (I telephone him the following day to express my thanks). Shortly thereafter, Sun Zongkai, deputy head of the Alumni Association, makes an appearance. In the first place, I formally protest the university’s unfair treatment of Xu, following which I speak out over the refusal by the university leaders to accept our letters and also in regard to the forced closure of our alumni website. Finally, I voice my criticism of the foolishness of the decision taken by the university to erect a security wall blocking off access to the Wang Stele. (I jokingly observe that I would have celebrated such a wall if it had appeared at our old enemy campus — Peking University, but for it to have occurred at my alma mater has occasioned profound anguish!)

Deputy Secretary Shi (I furtively checked his title online and learn that he was also the Deputy Secretary of the Tsinghua Party Committee) listens to me attentively and, although he occasionally offers some words of explanation, he makes no attempt to dispute what I am saying. Gradually, the atmosphere becomes somewhat more relaxed, amicable even. I present Shi with the large envelop containing our two Open Letters and the list of 1000 Signatories and he undertakes to hand it directly to President Qiu Yong. Shi then asks me to pass on a message to our fellow alumni:

  1. The university will listen to our opinions with all due humility;
  2. Teachers and students, as well as alumni, will be vouchsafed to the degreee permitted by regulations; and,
  3. All alumni are welcome to visit the university to continue these exchanges.

In response to requests, I established a private conduit between me, Lin and them.

13:00: We are given a frugal boxed lunch. I’m quite a slow eater, but having finished their meal Lin and Tang Jie continue chatting, advancing their disparate political views in the process. By 14:00 the exchange has lasted for some three hours and, just before we finish up, I reiterate our demands: reinstate Professor Xu as soon as possible and cease and desist from harassing signatories to the petition. Following that, Tang Jie accompanies me to my car to fetch three copies of my humble book Working in and Getting Out of the Central Organisation Department, copies of which they have specifically requested. I tell Tang that the inscription in the copy intended for Qiu Yong will be ‘A Book to Be Denounced’ but, just as I am putting pen to paper he suggests that it might be more appropriate for me to write simply ‘For you to critique and keep’.



After the Event:
Amicable Exchanges, Thoughtful Re-evaluation?


4:30 am: In the dead of night Lin Hai sends me through a copy of his ‘Account of the Resistance of Graduates of Tsinghua University’ which, since I had been utterly exhausted over the previous few days due to an approach by friends at Peking University requesting that I help locate the Marxist Students who had gone missing at PKU, I only manage to look over quickly, in particular noting the section that touches on me. He’d originally co-signed the piece ‘Yan Huai and Lin Hai’, but I suggest that he remove my name, though he adds ‘This document has been read and approved by Yan Huai’ at the end.

After reading Lin Hai’s account Tang Jie privately observes to me that:

  1. He had not accompanied me to the Alumni Association;
  2. The Alumni Website had been taken out by hackers, and not closed down by Tsinghua; and,
  3. He had gone with me to get the books from my car, not Shi Zongkai.

After realising this I send Tang a message via WeChat to apologise: ‘You’re right’, I tell him. ‘You can let everyone know about your corrections and my apology to you so as to clear up any misunderstandings.’ Tang responds: ‘Both you and Elder Lin Hai are busy men so you can’t be faulted for getting a few details wrong. Please don’t apologise; I certainly wouldn’t  presume to correct my elders in public!’

Lin Hai’s account is not particularly forgiving of the Tsinghua administration and I feel that they could easily make a big fuss over such minor factual errors. Instead, they take a course of action that allows things to settle down, very much as had the events  that had unfolded on the day of 28 April itself, allowing thereby greater latitude for well-intentioned dialogue.




In the run up to the Tsinghua commemoration it was [as the Tang-dynasty poet Xu Hun 許渾 famously put it], ‘As though the halls were buffeted before a storm breaking overhead’, and over ten people who had signed the petition had ‘enjoyed the solicitations’ of the authorities (I had them ‘express concern’ in my direction no less than twice), while some people outside Beijing were even ‘invited to have tea’! Dozens of other alumni directly or privately expressed the hope that I’d be careful and take care of myself. With that in mind, I prepared myself by having my naturally long and curly hair cut off so that, should I wind up in a place where you sweat a lot, I would not be prey to lice; I even made preparations in case I was blocked from proceeding with my original plan. (As Lin Hai put it, ‘On the eve of the mission, they met up with old classmates who toasted them ceremoniously and bid them farewell.’)

Back before I had returned to China following the publication of my book I prepared myself for the worst, so now I found that I was without fear. As an organiser of the protest my particular concern was for the safety of the other participants. Although we repeatedly emphasised the importance of this being a peaceful and rational protest, things are quite unpredictable and [only recently] the police had engaged in violence at nearby Peking University [when dealing with Marxist students]. Most of the alumni involved in our action graduated from Tsinghua half a century ago and were now in their sixties. Who knows what could have happened if, by some chance, things got out of hand?


On the spot on the day of the commemoration the situation was, again [to quote a famous line from the Tang-dynasty poet Li He 李賀], ‘Like dark clouds amassed pressing down as if to crush us’! The superficially peaceful high enclosure was in fact surrounded by Men in Black who, despite it being a warm day, were in hoodies and caps, so they must have been particularly hot. Ms. Gao was dragged off unceremoniously to Lecture Hall #1 and kept there against her will by a group of five or six fellows in plain clothes (although one of them had shown her his police ID). It brought to mind the April Fifth Incident in 1976 and that small red building in the south-east corner of Tiananmen Square — the joint operations center of the army, police and militia — that had been burned down by the masses. On this occasion Lecture Hall #1 was the temporary HQ of the ubiquitous plain clothes police. If anything untoward occurred or if there was a clash between the police and the public, the losses could have been considerable.


I was grateful to the university for dispatching the well-disposed Sun Zhe. He arranged for that break in the Blue Wall to be opened up for us; he called for the earth-compacting equipment to be turned off; and he allowed us to stick up our slogans and prevented those plainclothes fellows from tearing them down. All of these things helped defuse the situation and avoid direct confrontation. I was also grateful to the police for releasing Ms. Gao and for allowing us to put up printouts of our petitions after originally having taken them down from the wall. Their timely and self-aware actions meant that things did not get out of hand and we were all able to avoid any overt clashes.


Thirty years ago it was, like this time around, spring verging on summer. Like now there had been a conflict between the authorities and the masses. On both sides back then the moderates had found themselves sidelined while hard-liners took the lead, each move that either side made was worse than the last. Finally, they ended up in same place; the result was a horrifying tragedy.

Thirty long years: I am not foolhardy enough to think that things might be reassessed and justice prevail this year, but I do earnestly wish that people might have the good sense to mull over that history and learn its lessons so that they can in full, or at least in part, avoid repeating those mistakes.

I’m a Constitutionalist [that is, someone who believes in the adherence of the power-holders to an independent constitutional and legal order], or what in the vernacular is dubbed ‘a Rightist’. But, at the same time, I support The JASIC Worker’s Movement [of Huizhou, Guangdong province] as well as the Peking University Marxist Society. I have lots of ‘leftie’ friends and I’ve been dragged into many ‘leftie groups’, though I draw the line at taking part in street agitation, and I know lots of brave ‘Warriors on the Left’ who have been arrested and jailed. To my mind, bad laws are laws nonetheless and I believe that popular agitation and political movements should take place within the parameters allowed by the existing legal system. It is, however, even more incumbent upon the authorities to deploy the law on the basis of what is actually legally permissible and they should do so in a civil manner. During the incident described herein the police had no right to detain or confine Ms. Gao, nor did they have any right to take down our petitions. We should commend them for being able to rectify their errors of judgement in a timely fashion. However, I remain appalled by the outrageous treatment of my online friend Qiu Zhanxuan, head of the Marxist Society of Peking University [Qiu was ‘disappeared’ on 28 April].


Prior to the university commemoration the heads of Tsinghua University refused to take receipt of my letter, demonstrating thereby their arrogance and lack of basic courtesy. On the eve of the commemoration they ‘Built High a Wall to Barricade Wang [Guowei]’ an act that was nothing less than an insult to the [2019 commemorative slogan celebrating] a ‘Confident Tsinghua That is More Open Than Ever’. Their gormless moves merely served to exacerbate the situation, so much so that our alumni commemoration was forced by circumstance to escalate into an act of public resistance. However, at the moment when the university was celebrating its founding the administration had the good sense not to treat members of the alumni as ‘fodder for stability maintenance’ [that is, they didn’t repress us]. We, for our part, were measured in our behaviour and we appreciated the good will of the university authorities. Such positive reinforcement on both sides led to the incident achieving a satisfactory conclusion. As a case study this incident should form part of Tsinghua history; it also offers those in more senior positions of power a way to think about and apply these lessons in resolving clashes between the authorities and the people in a rational and civilised manner.


For these reasons, I am grateful to the leadership of our alma mater. I only hope you can bring a similar level of wisdom and decency to bear when dealing with Professor Xu Zhangrun, a man of indomitable will yet frail constitution.


7 May 2019