On August 9, 2021, we published “Xi’s China, the Handiwork of an Autocratic Roué,” a robust denunciation of the Chinese political system and its leadership by Xu Zhangrun that was translated for the Review by Geremie R. Barmé, a fellow at the Asia Society in New York. Despite a distinguished career as a legal commentator, scholar, and law professor at Beijing’s Tsinghua University, Xu’s record of outspoken criticism led first to his suspension and then, last year, his dismissal from his university post.
Deprived of his livelihood and forced into private life, Xu refuses to be intimidated in the face of regular interrogations and police surveillance. These conditions also mean that he is forbidden from communicating with friends or journalists, so we are indebted to Geremie Barmé for helping us compile the following portrait based on exchanges he has had with Xu over recent years.
Xu Zhangrun was born in an impoverished township in rural Anhui province in 1962. The region had recently been devastated by the famine brought about by the Great Leap Forward, Mao Zedong’s quixotic attempt to advance communism in China through a crash program of industrialization. Besides a flood that all but wiped out Xu’s town, one of his earliest memories is of an older brother’s dying from illness brought on by malnutrition.
His was a family that, though impoverished, valued education—the young Xu never even had a desk, but that did not stop him reading and studying. The family was always under a cloud, however, because Xu’s father was branded as a “class enemy” after the Communist takeover in 1949. His father was repeatedly put through the humiliations of self-criticism sessions and the like—a feature of Maoist rule—and even his children, Xu and his siblings, were subjected to similar abuse.
Mao died in 1976, and not long after, Xu’s persistence was rewarded with a place at university; he completed a master’s at a law school in Beijing and was immediately offered a teaching job in law. Following a postgraduate degree in Australia, he took up a lectureship at Tsinghua in 2000. Even after the crackdown that crushed the Tiananmen Square protests, optimism about reform in China still seemed possible in the 1990s and 2000s, as he told Barmé:
People of my generation who had experienced the violence of the Cultural Revolution era welcomed the Economic Reforms and Open Door Policy [initiated in 1978], no matter how limited their scope. We were hopeful that, starting with baby steps, the country might gradually evolve and become a constitutional democracy. We were united in the belief that a return to the capricious and totalitarian violence of the past would be a disaster.
Not only have those hopes faded, but most of Xu’s reform-minded contemporaries have fallen silent. Especially with the rise of Xi Jinping—China’s most autocratic and “personalist” ruler since Mao—many have also kowtowed to the party apparatus. “Their stance has proved to be little different from that of the imperial slave-subjects of yesteryear,” Xu writes in his essay. “It has hastened China’s lurch back into the familiar old rut of totalitarianism.”
Xu opened his account as a high-profile critic of the regime in 2016 with an essay titled “Appeal for a True Republic,” which got more than 100 million page views online.
Since then, what I have done is to continue in a tradition long hallowed among educated individuals in China by following the dictates of my conscience to speak out against tyranny. I don’t think of myself as a dissident as such; I’m more of a conscientious objector daring to confront tyranny.
By doing so, Xu rejects the notion that his work is simply “samizdat protest literature.” “My aim is not just to protest the actions of the authorities,” he explained. “I am also addressing the Chinese public as best I can. China’s reform era has long since come to an end, and I see no alternative but to take up the battle in defense of liberal humanist ideals.” Courageous as this is, Xu’s “rebellion through writing” can seem a lonely mission—and he has despaired of many of his fellow academics and legal professionals. But that is not the whole picture, he hastened to add:
As a result of the official persecution I suffered after 2019, hundreds of Tsinghua graduates issued appeals and signed petitions on my behalf, and numerous fellow academics wrote essays, poems, and even a song, in support of me and my right to enjoy freedom of expression—as theoretically protected by the Chinese constitution.
I asked Barmé what most impressed him about Xu’s stand. “When I read his July 2018 essay [a jeremiad titled “Imminent Fears, Immediate Hopes”], I was particularly interested in his criticism of what is now known as the ‘special provisioning system,’ one that showers the Party nomenklatura with coveted access to luxury goods and a raft of privileges,” Barmé explained. “I was also very much taken with his refined—and challenging—literary style, something that echoed the most important polemics from the late nineteenth century.”
It is evidently challenging to the Chinese authorities. After Xu’s recent book Ten Letters from a Year of Plague appeared, its independent Chinese publisher in New York came under pressure from Beijing to withdraw it. “The Chinese authorities even made an offer to buy back the manuscript,” Barmé told me, “an egregious instance of interfering in the internal affairs of another country.” For his part, Barmé has made Xu’s cause his own, supporting Xu’s writing through his own online platform, Chinese Heritage:
My mentor Simon Leys’s great work, The Chairman’s New Clothes: Mao and the Cultural Revolution (1971), uses as an epigraph this ancient Chinese adage: “The refusal of one decent man outweighs the acquiescence of the multitude.” Having worked on the writings of Chinese men and women of conscience since the mid-1980s, I thought that it was important to help non-Chinese-language readers understand not only Xu Zhangrun’s message, but also the vast cultural and historical world to which it gives expression.
This article is part of a regular series of conversations with the Review’s contributors; read past ones here and sign up for our email newsletter to get them delivered to your inbox each week.