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‘One Seed Can Make an Impact’: An Interview with Chen Hongguo

Sim Chi Yin/Magnum Photos
Chen Hongguo in Zhiwuzhi, the reading room he established in Xi’an, China, 2018

Chen Hongguo might be China’s most famous ex-professor. Five years ago, he quit his job at the Northwest University of Politics and Law in Xi’an, publishing his resignation letter online after administrators prohibited him from inviting free-thinking lecturers to speak to his students. After resigning, he decided to keep bringing edgy speakers to this inland metropolis by launching Zhiwuzhi in 2015, a reading room whose name is the Chinese translation of the Socratic paradox “I know that I know nothing.”

Zhiwuzhi is easily the most dynamic public space in China, hosting a dozen book clubs and two to three events a day, including regular appearances by some of China’s best-known public intellectuals, including Guo Yuhua, Hu Jie, He Weifang, and dozens more. While similar bookstores or arts spaces have closed or self-censored themselves into irrelevancy, Zhiwuzhi has remained open, a tribute to Chen’s desire not to preach but to educate the public in critical, democratic thinking—not as an opposition figure but as someone with one foot in the mainstream.

Late last year I went to Xi’an to explore how critical thinkers in China’s provinces are surviving the current period of repression in Chinese politics. I found a thriving, if cautious, ecosystem of videographers, writers, and journalists, all of whom consider Zhiwuzhi their spiritual home. Some of these interviews I have previously published, such as with the citizen journalist Tiger Temple, or the Buddhist writer Jiang Xue. I also wrote a broader look at Zhiwuzhi and Xi’an’s intellectual scene for the magazine here.

In this conversation, Chen discusses his Christian faith, the importance of being honest with the police, and how doing long-term work in one city is more useful than jetting around the world giving lectures.


Ian Johnson: You got your PhD in law from China University of Political Science and Law in Beijing. You could have kept teaching in the capital but you chose to come to Xi’an. Why did you do that?

Chen Hongguo: You don’t realize how pitiful the students are here. The quality of teaching isn’t that good and they don’t get to hear good speakers. So I began to invite prominent intellectuals. We had people like [the economic and social reformer] Mao Yushi, [the independent historian] Wu Si, [the civil rights law professor] He Weifang, [the civil rights lawyer] Pu Zhiqiang and others. Most were from the “freedom faction” [ziyoupai, a key group of public Chinese intellectuals who seek a more open political system] but we had others too.

And public security opposed it?

People often asked me who gave you trouble and I would just say “highers-up” because this is how it was put to me: “the highers-up don’t want you to do this or that.” So I’d ask who these “highers-up” are. They wouldn’t answer. You’re supposed to know.

You also got into trouble for a book club you set up.

Universities are commercialized. You lecture, you go home, you get paid. Nowadays in Chinese cities, universities are mostly on remote campuses. You get bussed in to the campus, which is really far away from town, give a lecture and go home. You’re not supposed to spend time. There’s no way to have interactions with students. So I set up reading clubs to interact more closely with the students. We read many books, like Milton’s Paradise Lost, de Tocqueville’s The Old Regime and the French Revolution, as well as Democracy in America. We were about to read Max Weber’s The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism when we were shut down. They said you can’t do this in the classroom.

So you met in your office?

Right, and when thirty to forty students came and the room was filled, we met in the stairway. People called it the “stairway lectures.” I kept having problems and in 2013 I decided to quit.

And your family and friends supported you, right?

Ha. No friend of mine supported me. My wife? Forget it. They worried that in China’s system I’d find no work. What could I do? Professor He Weifang called me and said, “Don’t resign.” But I persisted. That year the party issued a new document, number nine, that said universities can’t teach Western thought. If I can’t teach Western thought, then what is a legal professor who’s teaching about the Constitution supposed to do? Now it’s even worse. They’d have fired me. Fortunately, I quit.

That was at the end of 2013. Then you spent a year in Beijing and then six months in Hong Kong at the China Media Project. You wrote a book there called Daxuecheng, or the “university city.” What does that mean?

It’s the idea of the ivory tower, or the city state. It’s like a city state in ancient Greece, or at least that’s how I thought a university should be: independent and democratic.

Do you miss the university?  

Zhiwuzhi is better than a university. I could only give a few lectures a month at the university and the authorities had to approve everything. It was so difficult. If I tried to lecture, then the students’ advisers would try to convince them not to attend and would note who had and who hadn’t attended. Now we give on average ten lectures a week on everything from the environment to the #MeToo movement. It’s also much more meaningful. It’s open to the public. It’s helping to train a true civil society.

In this political climate how do you stay open?            

I’ve tried to figure this out. We talk about being closed. It could happen. Last week we had [the Chengdu intellectual and Christian activist] Ran Yunfei. Thirty minutes into his talk, plainclothes police arrived. I went over to them and we spoke while Ran was speaking. They took pictures. We welcomed them and were courteous.

But the first thing I’d say is I’m not a revolutionary. Secondly, if you have a place where you’re located, it’s easier for them. They know where you are. They can monitor you. And, finally, I’m not making a political statement.

I also don’t make them into the enemy. I’m not their enemy. I respect them. It’s their job. They have to make a living too. I say to them, “Look, your politics is too low-class for me. We’re doing culture, not politics.” I say to them, “Look, politics is beyond me. It’s not my paygrade. But culture, that’s something else.”

My argument is also that this is a good thing. It’s good for Xi’an’s culture. We’re a calling card for Xi’an. At the end of last year [2017] someone from Public Security came to see me and said they can basically support us, but sometimes you’ve made some mistakes. Basically they can accept us, even if some nights are more controversial.

I met an off-duty police officer here the other night.  

That’s Zhiwuzhi! He’s a police officer[, but when he comes he’s here] on his own time. Some public servants are warned not to attend our events. “You’re talking to the enemy! It’s sensitive! Don’t go there! It’s not good for your career!” But some still come anyway.

My main view is: no secrets. You have to realize they’ll hear everything, even our conversation right now. They will know. Absolutely. Don’t think you can keep a secret from them. They really do know everything. It’s a system. It’s not one guy following you.

How do you calibrate who speaks?

We try to focus on culture. Sometimes maybe we overstep things, or when the public asks questions, some might be sensitive. Someone might ask about June 4 [the 1989 massacre in Beijing] but we don’t organize talks about that.

From my personal point of view, even when in the classroom, I don’t like lecturing down to people. I never directly attacked the government. What’s the point of that?

I want to increase people’s ability to analyze and evaluate for themselves, not force ideas on them. I want to work toward enlightenment, not push my propaganda. This is how society will change.

Aren’t politics important?

Yes, politics are important, but aren’t there other topics too? We want to enrich people’s lives. We want to add to their lives. We don’t want anger and hatred. We want positive change. Sometimes I wonder if some people are happy with their lives. We want to add to happiness.

What role does Christianity play in your life?

I converted in 2009 but there wasn’t a big story or [personal] crisis. It’s not because I got cancer or something. What’s important is how it affected me as an intellectual. In China there’s a concept called “cultural Christians.” These are Christians who don’t go to church. Actually a lot of people in my circle are quite concerned about me, including [the jailed pastor in Chengdu] Wang Yi and Ran Yunfei. They’re concerned about the life of my soul. They think that Zhiwuzhi isn’t bad, but I should start a church! [Laughs.] Many say that: just start a church instead of this space. But my answer is that God’s plan is different for everyone.           

I do know I should go to church more often. Sometimes I find the sermons boring. Maybe this is my arrogance as an intellectual. At the Ran Yunfei talk someone in the public asked him a funny question: “What do you think of these three big issues: Chiang Kai-shek killing people, Trump having many women, and Chen Hongguo not going to church?” [Laughs.] So you can see that a lot of people are concerned about my spiritual life!

Sim Chi Yin/Magnum Photos
Chen Hongguo, 2018

Have you thought of expanding Zhiwuzhi to other cities?

Someone wanted to open in Lanzhou and he was very insistent but I thought, what if the first thing they do is hold a commemoration for June 4? Then I’m finished. [Laughs.] If they open it then I can’t control it. Also, they [the authorities] don’t want you to propagate your ideas. We’re a local space and that’s one thing, but if we became national that would be another.             

Everyone’s way of acting is different. I’m gentle but firm. They consider this for sure—how you act. And I tell them, “I’m not interested in politics. I’m just interested in culture.” So they let you exist. But if you really were to try to go to other cities and spread, their attitude would be different.

How do you survive financially?   

We have about 130 members who pay 1,500 yuan [roughly $250] a year. We have eight volunteers. We lose about 10,000 to 20,000 a month. When we started we had donors who gave us 1 million yuan but we’re through this already. The Communists really pay attention to the money. They know who’s backing us.          

We had one business idea: cultural travel, like you take a group to Europe. We had about seven or eight signed up and needed ten to break even. I got a call from the Ministry of Public Security and they said, “Aren’t you short a few people? Because you need ten people to break even, right?” And then he said, “So we’ll join you! We’ll pay our way!” [Laughs.] I said, “No, that won’t work, but thanks for caring about us.”

You’ve made an effort to talk about gender and transgender issues. How big of an issue is this in China today?

In civil society there is a lot of male chauvinism, maybe including myself. It’s one’s upbringing. It’s hard to break free from it. We have to keep studying and realize it’s a problem. We have to become self-aware. We need to do more. I need to do more. But honestly it’s very difficult to run these events [on gender]. We have so many loyal members and they come to so many of our talks, but when it’s about feminism, we don’t get that many.           

We talk about the #MeToo movement here but really I think the impact on most of society has been extremely limited. Except for media, intellectuals, and public servants—these three circles—no one pays attention to it. If you look online you’ll see a lot of activity but in terms of actual impact it’s little.

You said you don’t want to expand, but you do want to improve people’s ability to judge and make decisions, and that this will lead to change. How long is this transformation?            

China has a saying: it takes ten years to grow a tree, but a hundred to cultivate a person. A real social transformation takes time. Look at Taiwan, it happened but it took time. And they had civic society [before their democratic transformation] but we never did. The Chinese Communist Party eliminated it. It existed before 1949 but was destroyed. So from a long-term point of view the most important thing is time. A scholar wrote four characters to describe our work: jing shen chong jian, which means “spiritual reconstruction.”

How important is it to be rooted in a place like Xi’an?       

If you can put down roots for ten years you can make changes. This changes the ecology of a community. A lot of NGOs aren’t really part of civic society because they aren’t able to put down roots.  Some groups actually have a lot of money. They are often trying to find ways to spend money. But this isn’t the same as putting down roots.

I’m putting roots in a city, Xi’an. But actually my scope of influence is greater. I can actually influence the entire world.

I don’t get it.           

You see me, I’m here every day. It’s not because I can’t leave for political reasons. It’s because I want to be here. I want to be in Xi’an. If you’re just flying around giving lectures you say you’re reaching a lot of people, but you’re really just reaching people shallowly.

Public intellectuals are coming under fire today. Critics say they’re not public, but castrated intellectuals because they are too moderate—that in today’s society they should be more extreme.            

To be honest in today’s context I feel more convinced by the extreme faction. In a conceptual way they are more persuasive, but my inclinations are based on pragmatic reason. You have to be based on reality.

So where do you fit in?

If you ask me what faction I belong to, I propose “rational and moderate.” If you want to seep into the soil of society you have to be like that. So I’m not outside the system. If you’re too much of an activist you won’t achieve anything. You want to be an activist, then great, be an activist. But then you’re shut down tomorrow.           

If I allow a banned speech then the next day I’m shut down. I’m not afraid of being shut down but we’ve spent so much of our effort to get this thing going, it would be too much of a pity to close it.

Some people say that your existence is itself a kind of breakthrough. Professor He Weifang once urged you to “be frivolous” and not always touch on sensitive topics.

I don’t want to exaggerate. If we don’t exist then it’s okay. But if we exist it’s better. It’s something positive. I wish Xi’an had ten million Zhiwuzhi, but that’s not how it is now.

But maybe I have a Christian view on that. You do something small and you don’t think it’s important but God can change it. One seed can make a big impact. Who knows where it lands and what grows from it?


This interview, part of Ian Johnson’s continuing NYR Daily series “Talking About China,” was supported by the Pulitzer Center.