The forty-five-year-old investigative journalist Jiang Xue is one of the most influential members of a group of journalists who came of age in the early 2000s, taking advantage of new—if temporary—freedoms created by the Internet to investigate pressing social issues. She worked at Chinese Business View (Huashangbao) until 2014, when she quit as its opinion-page editor over censorship. Since then, she has kept writing to an ever-shrinking audience on social media, most notably about the wives of several high-profile civil rights lawyers who have been arrested.
Jiang lives in Xi’an, the northwestern Chinese city I recently visited to explore how public intellectuals in the provinces are surviving the current crackdown on civil society and independent thinking. I found a thriving, if small, community of free thought centered on a public arts and speaking space called Zhiwuzhi, which is the Chinese for the Socratic paradox “I know that I know nothing.” Jiang is also a mainstay of this space, helping to suggest speakers and regularly attending events with her friend, the videographer Tiger Temple (interviewed previously in the NYR Daily) and Zhiwuzhi founder Chen Hongguo.
Jiang talked about how Mao’s Great Leap Forward famine shaped her family, the heyday of independent media in China, and her faith as a devout Buddhist, which sustains her in what she feels is a hopeless cause.
Ian Johnson: How much did your upbringing affect your decision to be an independent journalist?
Jiang Xue: I grew up in Tianshui, in Gansu Province, which has long been a center of culture and learning. My father was heavily influenced by an uncle who was in the KMT [the Kuomintang, the nationalist party that ran China before and during World War II until it lost the civil war to the Chinese Communist Party in 1949]. He had been an official in the county government. After liberation, he wasn’t allowed to work so he practiced calligraphy all day long. He really influenced my father, not just in learning calligraphy but the ideas behind the verses—the philosophy.
My father has a real affinity with traditional culture. He is a real Confucian. Maybe it’s because of this that the Communist Party’s influence on my father is very small. He isn’t suitable for living in this Red China. He has a very independent spirit. Even though my father is just an ordinary person, traditions give him the ability to consider things independently.
I remember especially, each Chinese New Year’s Eve we had to make offerings to our ancestors. It was very strict. He said we had to venerate the ancestors. There was no way to eat at Chinese New Year’s Eve without this offering.
It doesn’t sound as though you grew up as party members.
When I was small, we had to fill out a form and say your family’s political status. I was born in 1974, so it was about 1980 that I entered elementary school. I asked my father, “What’s our political status?” He said, “The masses!” If your family were party members, that was glorious. You could put that down. But my father never entered the party and was very independent. He insisted we always put down “the masses” for our status. I remember asking him, “Dad, why aren’t we party members?”
This was because of his belief in traditional culture?
No, because of his father. My father told us his father’s story every Chinese New Year before making the offerings, and every Qingming [tomb-sweeping festival] when we tended his grave. He was very serious about tending his father’s grave. He’d take us there and tell us his father’s story.
Tell me the story.
It was 1960. My grandfather was forty-eight years old. My father at the time was about thirteen and he had two elder sisters and a younger sister. There was nothing to eat. They were eating [the leaves or bark off] trees. He had a good character and was really tall, really strong. So he was the first to die.
How could the strongest die first?
He was the main laborer in the family. He had a wife and four children. So there were six mouths to feed. The only place to get food was in the communal dining hall. He would go there and get one corn bun. It was a bun about this big [six inches in diameter] for six people. That was their daily ration.
My grandfather, he was a very just person. He took a knife and cut the bun in six equal pieces. One for each person. Each one the same. My youngest aunt got the same as her father. But he still had to labor. He needed more, but everyone got the same. They all survived but he starved to death.
Not everyone was like this. Some people grabbed more. Many people let their children starve. The story made my father so sad, and it left a deep impression on me. People of my generation all knew about the famine. It wasn’t that far in the past. My daughter, she has no idea about this history but I tell her about it. The school history books don’t talk about it. Later, I thought this must have influenced me to become an independent journalist.
What role did your mother play in your life?
My father was a teacher and my mother’s hukou [the household registration that divides all Chinese into urban or rural residents] was rural. We lived in the countryside but were near a town. We had a small plot of land, maybe about a mu [a sixth of an acre]. My mother grew corn and vegetables.
My mother was very strict. She’d beat us! If she were a mother today, they’d call her a Tiger Mother! But she was very diligent. She worked hard. There were no shortcuts. She didn’t have much education but my father taught her. Together at night, they’d read [the classic Chinese novel] Dream of the Red Chamber.
In China, farmers are second-class citizens. After 1949, the Communist Party’s policy was to give all the advantages to urban residents. And during the Great Leap Forward famine, most who died weren’t in the cities; they were in the countryside. The people planting the grain starved to death. They made farming people into farming slaves. So when we were growing up, they told us that if you didn’t study hard we’d be left behind.
You entered university in 1992. That was not long after the June 4 Massacre.
1989 left a deep impression on me. For some people of my generation, it isn’t influential, but for me and our class, it was. I was in high school and everywhere there were big-character posters criticizing [former Premier] Li Peng and [top leader] Deng Xiaoping.
We collected money for the Tiananmen students. Everyone supported the students then. We went to the post office and asked them to send it to them. After they used guns on the students, we put out white flowers to honor the dead.
You went to the Northwest University of Politics and Law in Xi’an.
It was a depressing time. We didn’t seem to have any good teachers. I just wrote poems and painted. But then, in my junior year, I began to get interested in the law. But the problem was, what job? First, you had to enter the Communist Party and I didn’t want to do that. Most people ended up working in the courts, the procurate [public prosecutor], or public security [police]. I knew I definitely wouldn’t do that.
Why didn’t you want to join the party? Was it your family’s experiences?
Yes, but there was also a very specific experience. Around 1993 or so, one classmate was an activist. She really wanted to enter the party. She was always recruiting people. The party asked her to report on her thoughts and feelings. She had to keep rewriting it and rewriting it. She’d cry in the dorm room. I said I’d never join a group that made you report on your own feelings. I was so angry. I thought, what kind of party does this to people? I was around nineteen or twenty. I was young and didn’t know much about the world, but I knew I wouldn’t join the party.
And the legal profession didn’t interest you?
A lot of classmates, especially men, started drinking to improve their liquor tolerance. They said they needed to do this to talk to ordinary people. They had internships and would go to villages to work for the police. It was all about drinking and smoking. Some went to work in jails. They came back and told stories of drinking and smoking and how they’d beat prisoners in jail. I saw them change from nice boys to that. So I knew I wouldn’t join the system. I didn’t know what to do but I knew that.
I also didn’t know I’d become a journalist. I’d always written really well. But my father and others thought I should go back to Tianshui and work for a publisher. Instead, I interned at a newspaper. I wrote up little stories about daily life, twenty-five or so a month. Little things. Nothing deep. But I was good at it. I never lacked stories.
And then you joined Huashangbao, which was one of the first big commercial papers in China.
Newspapers in China are all founded on the Soviet model. They are organs of propaganda and don’t work on the basis of reporting news. But in the early 1990s, China deepened market reforms, including the marketization of newspapers. Newspapers were still run by state organs but had to be profitable. So they suddenly had to appeal to readers.
At first, being a journalist was simply fun. You could run around and go from event to event, and you could enter someone else’s life and have them tell you what they were doing. At the start, in 1998, as a young person—I hadn’t yet turned twenty-four—that was really interesting. We wrote really crude things and our profession wasn’t really professionalized.
Then, people like [Beijing Foreign Studies University Professor] Zhan Jiang wrote about how Pulitzer Prize winners reported. He translated a lot of material and brought to us the US principle of professional journalism. Then we began to take our jobs more seriously. But until 2003, I didn’t have a strong awareness of what I was doing.
What happened that year?
That was the year of Sun Zhigang [a student beaten to death in police custody, provoking a national debate]. And Hu Jintao and Wen Jiabao had just taken power. Everyone thought there was a new atmosphere. [Laughs] And also [the outbreak of the respiratory illness] SARS. It caused people to wake up.
Later, you ran the editorial department and were able to publish many critical commentaries. After so much success there, why did you leave?
I left after the Southern Weekend New Year’s Incident in 2013 [when staff at a once hard-hitting newspaper resigned over censorship]. We commented on this but were then told we couldn’t. They said that in future we should just write about the everyday life of ordinary people, but not their travails.
We had done a lot of controversial things and just got more and more criticism from above. I got the feeling that I was about to be fired, so I thought what the heck, I’ll just quit.
You published regularly in the Hong Kong-based magazine The Initium. It’s blocked in China but were you able to circulate the articles inside China?
I have my own public account on [the popular Chinese social media app] WeChat, but basically every time I publish something, it’s deleted. And now it’s deleted faster and faster! It used to take them a day to delete, but now it’s gone in an hour or faster. And The Initium is collapsing. They have no money anymore.
What can you do now?
I can’t do really big investigations because I don’t have the budget to travel widely. But I’m doing profiles of people who resist. And more about artists, too.
You don’t know if you can publish them but you still write them?
Yes, I just write them anyway. I feel I have to write them. As an independent journalist, if I think it’s important, I can write; so I do. In the past, you were always being told you can’t write about this or that. Now, I can write.
But you can’t make a living.
For the past few years, I didn’t consider money. I just felt it was important and I’d do it. For years, I had a good salary and so I have savings. We own our apartment.
How long can that go on for?
I’m not completely divorced from reality. It’s coming up on three years and I think I might have to find a real job. I might go back to find work, but then I wouldn’t be able to write about sensitive things.
One of the few bright spots in Chinese social movements has been the rise of a new generation of feminists, including the Feminist Five. They were detained, but women’s issues still seem to be discussed, at least in some circles. How do you view it?
Feminism is important. Those five young activists, the Feminist Five who were detained in 2015, attracted a lot of attention. It wasn’t really a radical action—just something in the subway in Guangzhou—but the way the police acted was radical, especially in Guangzhou, which we always considered as having more space [for dissent than the more tightly controlled Beijing].
I think they attracted a lot of attention because they could publicize their cases well, as young people on social media. And their actions were different from those earlier generation of people who struggled. It was more modern. This event was unusual, especially given the deterioration of the atmosphere here recently.
The Tsinghua University professor Liu Yu [see my 2015 NYR Daily interview with her here] criticized the MeToo movement for using public denunciations instead of legal processes. She thought it was too much like the Cultural Revolution.
In that article, Liu Yu maybe didn’t quite understand MeToo and what it was. She’s not that old, but she might not have been paying attention to Feminism 2.0, so perhaps she was a bit out of touch. She said, Why did those women have to protest? Why didn’t they go to the law? A friend said that Liu Yu should go with a student who’s been harassed and try to report sexual harassment. Then she’d see how hard it is.
But the criticism of Liu Yu was terrible. She was cursed horribly online. This was far out of proportion.
In your recent essay “You Look Like an Enemy of the State,” you wrote, “You and I are both in prison. Before, the prison was visible; now it isn’t.” How do you deal with this sort of hopelessness?
There’s a term in Buddhism called chulixin. It means you don’t consider this time, or a lot of things in life, as that important. That has helped me.
In what way?
What influences me a lot is the spirit of the Dizang Bodhisattva [in Sanskrit, Ksitigarbha]. The Dizang Bodhisattva is the one who works in the darkest, the most bitter part of life. [Jiang Xue then writes in my notebook a poem in Chinese, which roughly translated reads]:
The great wish of the Dizang Bodhisattva
Is if hell isn’t empty
He won’t become a Buddha;
Only when all beings are liberated
Will he realize Enlightenment
The meaning is that this Bodhisattva won’t achieve Buddhahood until hell is empty, but hell will never be empty. But it persists in trying, even though it’s impossible. It’s a bit like the Sisyphus myth.
Is this your life?
When I read it, I felt really touched. People in China, many of us, realize it’s hopeless. How can you change things? It’s hopeless. But you persist. You can’t give up just because it’s hopeless.
It’s like [Chen] Hongguo at Zhiwuzhi. What hope is there of succeeding? It [Zhiwuzhi] won’t have an immediate impact on society and any day it can be closed. He can be detained or thrown out, as Tiger Temple was in Beijing. But they still go out and do it. In my eyes, whether it’s Liu Xiaobo [the deceased Chinese Nobel Prize Laureate] or the 709 lawyers [the civil rights activists so named because they were detained on July 9, 2015], their spirit is a Bodhisattva’s spirit. They know what the outcome will be, but they still do it.
Haven’t some people given up on civil society? The term in Chinese, gongmin shehui, is even used derisively as something failed or a waste of time.
In the past, everyone thought we needed civil society. People thought we should build it. It was our hope. Now, a lot of people have lost hope. The way society has developed under the Communist Party, it’s impossible to develop civil society. Public media has been killed. Public institutions have been closed. Teachers who dare to speak up have been driven off. It seems that civil society has no force.
But I don’t agree with this view. Civil society is something we have to struggle for. It’s something we can fight for bit by bit.
When I was in New York recently, someone who had been active in the Chinese media was now living there and running a restaurant. We met up. He said, “What’s the point of what you’re doing?”
I said, “So those of us inside China who are doing this, it has no significance? Their hard work, their sacrifice, it has no significance?” He said, “It only has a moral value that you people continue on. But it has no practical value because of the Communist Party’s control.”
But I disagree. It matters if you try. I want to be a normal person in an abnormal society. I want to be able to say truthful things, and express what’s in my heart.
This interview, part of Ian Johnson’s continuing NYR Daily series “Talking About China,” was supported by a grant from the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting.