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A democratic China must be realized in our time: Xu Zhiyong

Human rights groups in Hong Kong protested in 2014 against the crackdown on civil society and demanded the immediate release of Xu Zhiyong who was detained at the time. Image: Voice of America/Public domain

Editorial remarks

Democracy Without Borders is republishing Xu Zhiyong’s statement below with kind permission of China Change. Xu was sentenced to 14 years in prison on April 10, 2023. His statement was first published the day before with these remarks from the editors:

Dr. Xu Zhiyong (许志永) is no stranger to those who have followed the emergence of civil society in China in the early 2000s to its being silenced by the continuous suppression, more severe under Xi Jinping. Xu Zhiyong’s career began from providing legal assistance along with a team of rights lawyers to disadvantaged Chinese seeking justice, and evolved into the New Citizens Movement around 2010. The movement chiefly concerned itself with calling upon Chinese to become true citizens, exercising their rights and shouldering their responsibilities as citizens to transition China into a democracy through nonviolent means. The activists organized regular citizens’ gatherings around the country, promoted equal education rights for children of migrant workers, and participated in grassroots elections of people’s representatives as independent candidates, among many other causes. Xu Zhiyong was imprisoned during the crackdown on the New Citizens Movement in 2013, serving four years. In February 2020, he was again detained after a gathering in Xiamen, Fujian province. He was tortured during the first six months in secret detention, or RSDL. Held in Linshu County detention center in Shandong province, along with fellow citizens movement leader Ding Jiaxi, Xu and Ding were tried in June 2022 for “subversion of state power.” They are expected to be sentenced on Monday, April 10, 2023, Beijing time. Not allowed paper and pen, and with slim chances of being allowed to speak in court, Dr. Xu dictated the following statement, to be released before his sentencing. 

Xu Zhiyong around 2018. Photo: China Change with kind permission

Court statement by Xu Zhiyong

I have a dream, a dream of a China that is beautiful, free, fair, and happy. It is a democratic China that belongs to everyone on this land, not to any one ethnicity or political party. It is truly a country of the people, its government chosen by ballots, not violence.

The people regularly elect legislators, mayors, governors, and presidents, whose power comes from the people, and is owned, governed, and shared by the people. People are no longer the pretense with which the dictator claims his legitimacy; people are no longer the silent ants as dynasties rise and fall; they are the real masters of the country. The rulers are no longer occupiers perched high above the people, but humble servants. They compete fairly and are elected by the people for their merits. Power succession is no longer a struggle of life and death, but a process celebrated by the people. 

“When the Great Way bears sway, the world’s affairs would be conducted for the public benefit only.” It’s been three thousand years, the Chinese nation will inevitably sail out of the historical Three Gorges towards a modern civilization. A democratic China must be realized in our time, we cannot saddle the next generation with this duty.

A democratic China must be realized in our time, we cannot saddle the next generation with this duty.

It will be a China with the rule of law. We shall have legislative democracy: people elect their representatives to make laws through democratic procedure that represent the interest of the majority. No rulers can impose malignant laws on the people, nor will there be extralegal laws in the name of discipline and order. We shall have strict and impartial law enforcement: the laws shall be enforced by an elected government, and no individual or organization shall be above the law, nor shall the disadvantaged be excluded from the protection of the law. We shall have a fair and just judiciary: judges shall be independent, serving the law and not any other interests, delivering judgment according to the dictates of law and conscience.   

Law will no longer be a tool of class dictatorship, but the standard for fairness and justice. Judges are no longer the “knife handle” with which the privileged to concentrate power, but the guardian of justice. In a China with the rule of law, all powers move in its order, people believe in and trust it, and justice flows downward, like an ever-flowing river. That’s a free China.

I abhor a society where power is unrestrained and human nature is distorted, and where a few bureaucrats decide what 1.3 billion people should believe and speak, what news they should listen to, and what movies they should watch. They’ve built a high firewall to isolate China from the civilized world. They’ve kept millions of internet inspectors, police, and commenters to beat down people’s voices. They’ve created an air-tight surveillance network using ubiquitous cameras and big data that renders everyone naked. They’ve also invaded the spiritual world of the people, burning crosses, demolishing Buddhist seminaries, and forcing newer and native religions into exile.

Freedom can’t be absolute, to be sure. But that’s not a reason to smother liberty. The human race has its standards inked into the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and the Chinese constitution also claims freedoms for the people, and it cannot forever be an empty “I Owe You” promise.

I yearn for a free China where power can not run amok

I yearn for a free China where power can not run amok, where our freedom to believe in a religion or an -ism is a personal choice and cannot be interfered with by those in power, and where we have the freedom of speech without large-scale censorship and political restriction, and no one is imprisoned for expressing their political beliefs. In a free China, we have the freedom to participate in public affairs without fake and manipulated elections, without such a thing as “wanton talk” [about the communist leaders]; everyone has the freedom to form a political party or association. In a free China, we are free to live our lives without Big Brother watching over everything we do, and privacy and dignity are not to be trampled by those in power. In a free China, people thrive to bring the rebirth of our ancient civilization in which we live in truth and become the best of ourselves without being bent out of shape by power.

In today’s China, people have no rights; resorting to connections to get things done is a common sense of the Chinese. Injustice exists in every country, but in China, it’s something else — no independent judiciary, no free media, no dissenting voices, and “anti-corruption” is how the rulers eliminate their perceived rivals. In China, the greatest injustice is the one-party rule, a privileged group monopolizing the political and economic lifeline of the entire country. People are exploited and burdened by high gas prices, high housing prices, and high taxes, but the exploiters say they lose money year in and year out.  

In today’s China, people have no rights

I yearn for a fair and just China without it being permeated by such ills. I want a China where civil servants are clean and honest, serving the public interest, not making gains for themselves, where each person has equal access to education without being discriminated against by urban vs. rural household registration or by wealth. Let parents be free of the anxiety of choosing schools for their children by eliminating the difference between key schools and ordinary schools. Let people have equal access to job opportunities in public service based on their merits, not their connections, belief, political party, or gender. Let the Chinese enjoy equal benefit of retirement regardless where they live, in the countryside or cities; whether they are public servants or employees of businesses, their pension should match proportionally to their pre-retirement salary; and elderly in even the poorest countryside should have enough pension to live a dignified life. Let us have fairness in health care, enjoy free health coverage for major illnesses whether they are government officials or average people, and let no one be impoverished because of medical bills.

In a China where public interest is served, the powerful have check and balance, the weak have protection, each fulfilling their duty, exercising their abilities, and finding their places. From cradle to grave, the young and old shall live a life of love and smile without being consumed by anger and anxiety. I abhor a society where people guard against each other and inflict pains on each other. From young, we are taught not to trust strangers. We hide ourselves behind masks. We do not help an elderly who falls on the ground. Apathy may exist in every society, but in China, it’s something else: this country is built on class struggle and ruthless power. The government has no moral principles, and the society has no conscience. Marxist materialism deprives people of a spiritual world, stemming the source of love.

I long for a nation full of love, a China free from the darkness of its ancient fears; a people of faith who respect heaven and love humanity, aware that “there are deities watching three feet above one’s head” (头顶三尺有神明); a people who believe in the interdependency of life and that we all are born of — and shall return to — the same spiritual wellspring. Living in this world, we find ourselves in a diversity of experiential roles in pursuit of our happiness; we have our differences, we have our disagreements, there is suffering, but there is no devil. We may be immersed in the sentiments of our roles, yet at the same time, standing from a loftier vantage, we can take a broad view of the decisions we make in our respective roles. In this there is no hate, just benevolence and mercy. To love oneself, and cultivate one’s life in this world in perfection of the soul; to love our family and friends as part of the love and thankfulness that come with life; we love each other as strangers, greeting each other with smiles; to love our enemies, facing them with with an unfettered spirit of sympathy instead of spite, animosity. To love all life and the spirit of all things; to love the eternal, mortal earth. In a China full of love, there shall be no devil, no enemies, no power struggle in the dark. We shall be sincere, simple, compassionate, with pure faces, bright eyes, and smiles of innocence. That is our China reborn.

Humankind needs to find a new path into the future

For over 2,000 years, the land of China has shivered in the shadow of Emperor Qin. Even with the renaissance of the Tang and Song, the backwardness of today was nothing short of inevitable. The path to the rebirth of Chinese civilization must come from on high, from the Lord in heaven, from the bountiful spiritual realms of our ancestors. There exists a China in full bloom, partaking in the current of Western democracy and science, rejuvenated in the glory of Eastern civilization. For thousands of years, the different nations of man have arrived at the global village by a variety of paths, each people with vast differences under one roof. The clash of civilization, spurred by the gulf in religious traditions, has already occurred; humankind needs to find a new path on which to journey into the future; this is China’s heavenly mandate, the vast spiritual plain left to us by Heaven above, from which a new civilization must rise.

The spiritual staples we offer to humankind are not the writings on the bamboo strips found in the tombs of our ancestors, but the revelation heard by the people of this age: to perceive the natural world and ourselves from a higher perspective. This is an age of a new civilization, inspired by a new philosophy and new faith in God: that is the China for which the people of this world yearn, and China will surely become the greatest nation on earth. That shall happen when we are rid of dictatorship, in a free and democratic China. The energy and enthusiasm of 1.3 billion people set free shall usher in the world’s greatest technological advances, the most brilliant culture, and the most prosperous economy. We shall have a powerful military, not for conquest of land or resources, but to bring the sword of righteousness to those corners of the earth yet freed of tyranny and injustice. Ours shall be the leading thought and culture, not imposed upon the world by force, but spread near and far through its inherent merit.

Someone who lives by the adage that “friendship is fleeting but interests are eternal” is bound to be a failure, and the same is true of a nation. In diplomacy there shall be mutual benefit and success, based on moral obligation. Those treacherous tyrants will never be our comrades. We have a duty to extend aid to those peoples still writhing under the jackboot of dictatorship, to help them partake in human civilization. This is not just a moral responsibility, but also our redemption.

We must have the courage to move on from the injuries done to our country in the 20th century. A great nation, truly confident, must not remain forever mired in its historical grievances. We must work together to create a splendid future for Asia, while operating on the basis of mutual benefit, cooperation, and competition with the developed countries to build a new liberal-democratic world order. Humanity needs a world government to keep the peace, protect the environment, fight disaster, and explore outer space.

You are born in China, and you don’t need a reason to love her. It’s a seed planted in your soul. But loving China means to make her better through our efforts.

To that end, I’ve been imprisoned three times. The first time, they accused Gongmeng (公盟, Open Constitution Initiative), a nonprofit public interest organization, of evading taxes. The second time, they accused us of “disrupting public order” by pressuring the government to allow children living in Beijing with parents without Beijing household registration to take college entrance exams in Beijing. This time, I’m charged with “subversion of state power” for expressing my desire for a beautiful China and for calling on Chinese to become real citizens.

Why is it “subversion” for Chinese to pursue democracy and freedom?

Why is it “subversion” to aspire to be real citizens? Why is it “subversion” for Chinese to exercise their core values and pursue democracy and freedom? Why is it “subversion” for them to sing “Arise! Those who do not want to be slaves,” which is the opening stanza of the national anthem of China? How hypercritical and absurd their regime is! How rotten it is!

I’m proud to suffer for the sake of freedom, justice and love. I do not believe they can build national rejuvenation on the quicksand of lies. I do not believe the Chinese nation is destined to authoritarianism and slavery. I don’t believe freedom can be forever imprisoned behind high walls. And I do not believe the future will forever be a dark night without daybreak.

For more than 30 years, from a teenager running in a snowstorm to an adult sitting in a prison cell waiting for daybreak, my life has been one arduous journey toward a dream that was also the dream of generations of Chinese before me. “A beautiful China” was the goal Mr. Sun Yat-sen’s failed struggle and regret; it was in Lin Juemin’s (林觉民) last letter to his wife before execution; it was Lin Zhao (林昭) and Yu Luoke (遇罗克)’s song of youth; and it was the blood-stained declaration of Tiananmen students.

More than a century has passed. The Chinese nation has gone through tribulations to reach a modern civilization. Today, that sacred mission has fallen on the shoulders of our generation.  

Citizens, compatriots! The mighty current of the world surges forth. The rebirth of Eastern civilization shall rise like the morning sun; the great historical shift unseen in three millennia shall come to an end with our generation. Let us shoulder the duty of this great era together as citizens, and welcome a China that blossoms in the warmth of spring!

Xu Zhiyong
Xu Zhiyong is a Chinese civic rights activist and a political prisoner
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