It is very unusual for a human rights activist to be profiled by official media in China. The Economic Observer recently published a profile of Xu Zhiyong, a legal scholar and activist who relentlessly seeks social justice. Excerpts translated by CDT’s Linjun Fan.
“We must get rid of the traditional idea that politics merely means revolution and counterrevolution. What we seek is not destruction, but construction. We do not participate in politics to gain power, but to check power. What we pursue is not material wealth, nor the desire to control others. We strive to realize the value of life for ourselves, and help to promote public welfare in the meantime. ”
This paragraph is quoted from an idealistic article titled Politics Should Be Desirable written by Xu Zhiyong last year.
Thirty-five-year-old Xu is a legal scholar and activist. He is knowledgeable and enthusiastic, persistent and active. Many young people admire him as a role model, and intellectuals have great expectations for him. He seems to be born with compassion for those in poverty and misery…
Xu has made a long list of remarkable achievements in fighting for social justice and making changes in politics. He wrote a public letter to the National People’s Congress in the aftermath of the Sun Zhigang Incident; he volunteered to be the defense lawyer for Sun Dawu; he was elected twice as a People’s Representative at Haidian District of Beijing; he conducted research on petitioners in Beijing, etc.
The Open Constitution Initiative of which Xu is a member is preparing to file a collective lawsuit for victims of the recent milk power poisoning incident, seeking compensation for those who could not afford to hire a lawyer.
Sitting across the table from me, Xu is quiet and self-contained. He speaks slowly, word by word, carefully expressing his opinions with long pauses. He said it was when he was 14 years old that he set a mission for his life. He was an introverted and ambitious middle school student at that time, harboring a remote dream. He estimated that it would take 20 years for him to realize the dream. Now the dream still remains far away from him after 20 years have passed. But his mission remains unchanged:
“I strive to be a worthy Chinese citizen, a member of the group of people who promote the progress of the nation. I want to make people believe in ideals and justice, and help them see the hope of change. I have taken part in politics in pursuit of a better and more civilized nation. Through my lifelong deeds of fighting for social justice, I am determined to prove to the citizens across the country that politics should be desirable, that politics should be a cause for public welfare.”
Xu has visited “black jails” in Beijing four times since the beginning of the year. The so-called black jails are places used by local officials to detain petitioners.
Xu received a text message on Oct. 12. “This is Ma Xirong from Henan province. I am now detained at the black prison at the backyard of the Youth Hotel at Hufang Road. Can you come to rescue me and the two dozen people detained here? Help!” Xu and several reporters arrived at the hotel the next afternoon.
Ma came to a window trying to get out to meet Xu, but a guard stopped her. So she talked to Xu on the other side of the window. Ma told Xu that she was stopped by police when she was walking on Wangfujing Street. The police detained her after finding out that she carried a petition letter with her. She was then confined in the hotel yard. As they talked, more and more detainees gathered at the window. The guard pushed Ma back inside.
Shortly afterward, a minibus suddenly came. Three people jumped down from it, and violently attacked the petitioners. Xu wanted to fight back when he saw his companions being slapped, punched and kicked. “However, I must control myself. I must thoroughly calm down. We didn’t come for a fight. We came to suffer, ” he wrote on his blog that evening.
“Almost at the same time, my neck, chest and face were punched. The bare-armed guard fiercely kicked me on my knees from behind, trying to knock me down. But I stood there calmly and said to him, ‘I won’t take issue with you.’ He kept cursing me. I just looked at him with sympathy. ”
They managed to take Ma out of the detention place that afternoon. But she had to go back to her hometown with the officials from her local province. She took out her petition document to give it to Xu. Her son died in a car accident when he was a college student at a well-known university. She disagreed with a court decision on the accident, and has been petitioning since then.
“She suddenly knelt down before us, and thanked us for our help… I helped her stand up. Actually, I wanted to say to her, ‘Although we have been beaten, we didn’t lose anything. It’s our honor to share some of your misery.'”
According to Xu’s investigation, there are at least four places in Beijing that local officials from Henan province are using to detain petitioners. The local governments pay a handsome amount of money to rent the places and to hire people to guard the petitioners.
Xu said that the illegal prisons didn’t show up until after 2003. Petitioners used to be taken into homeless transfer centers and then sent back to their home provinces. After the government banned homeless transfer centers in 2003, local officials created illegal prisons as an alternative place to temporarily detain petitioners.
“Illegal prisons are much more horrible than illegal brick kilns. The practice must be stopped. I strive to bring sunshine there, even if it’s just a slim ray of light, ” Xu said.
Xu became well-known to the public in 2003, when three legal PhDs of Beijing University, Xu and his classmates Yu Jiang and Teng Biao, sent a joint letter to the National People’s Congress, urging it to review the Act on Housing and Transferring Urban Homeless. The Congress didn’t conduct the review as requested, but the act was rescinded shortly after the letter was submitted. The incident was regarded as a landmark step forward in China’s legal system.
Xu had studied the law on housing and transferring homeless people a few years before the Sun Zhigang incident. He first started to learn about the army of petitioners when he saw them waiting in front of the reception office of China Central Television in 1997. From talking to them, Xu got to know that many of the petitioners had been forcibly taken into custody and repatriation centers and then sent back to their home provinces.
He spent a lot of time doing research on the unjust law in 2002 and believed that it would be terminated, during his years of pursuing a Ph.D. in Beijing University. He worked part-time for the rural edition of China Reform magazine, and received petitioners and listened to their grievances every weekend.
In the same year Xu ran for the position of People’s Representative at Haidian District of Beijing. In an article titled Why I am Running for People’s Representative he wrote, ” Let us cherish the democratic rights the law has given us, and let us treat our laws sincerely. ” .. He was elected by an overwhelming majority at the end of year, and reelected four years later.
Xu was born in 1973 in a small village by the Yellow River, located in Minquan County, Henan province. Minquan means Civil Rights. Xu is proud of his birthplace. He believes that it’s not a coincidence he was born at a place called Civil Rights County. He believes that he came to the world with a mission. “I am destined to fight for civil rights all my life,” he said.
Xu was a quiet young man in his middle school years. He wrote about his ambitions in his diary. “Dedicate myself to public service, advocate for social reform, change the tradition of a nation, and help to build an ideal society.” He wished to study journalism in college and expose wrongdoings. However, his wish was not fulfilled and he was accidentally enrolled by the department of law.
“I get angry whenever I see something unjust. I would try my best to help the disadvantaged, ” he said. He has been swindled a number of times by people who pretended to beggars. He has become more cautious. But he still tries to help beggars as much as he can, and tells them seriously that, “You should not cheat on me” …
Xu went alone to a village in Liaoning Province to provide legal assistance to farmers there in 2001. The village had received a considerable amount of compensation money after its land was used to build a highway. However, corrupt local officials had squandered all the money themselves without giving any to the farmers. When Xu gathered villagers to discuss how to solve the problem, ten police vehicles drove into the village. A person got out, pointed his fingers at Xu and inquired, “Who sent you here?”
Xu was pushed into a police car after fierce arguing. Many villagers lay on the ground in front of the car to block it from moving. The conflict could trigger fatal violence. Xu got out of the car, persuaded the villagers to stop the blocking, and returned to the police car. He was then taken to the local police department. Six hours later, Xu was released and promised to leave Liaoning Province, on the condition that he could talk to the villagers before he left. The villagers gathered at a house and waited for Xu. Some seniors burst into tears when they saw Xu again.
“I said a few simple sentences to them. I said I would continue to help them. And then I left. I was sad. I contacted a few reporters, but failed to get them to report on the case. The farmer who led the protest in the village was put in prison for a year. That was the biggest setback I’ve encountered, ” he said.
Although Xu is regarded as a rebel by conservatives, he has not stopped trying to enter the political establishment. Xu submitted a unique application letter to join the CCP in 2002. “Joining the party gives me a better chance to work for the government and to serve the public, that’s why I am considering to become a party member, ” he wrote in the letter.
Xu started to write a book Report on Petitioning in China in 2005. Working together with several friends, he has recently completed the 200,000-word book, which has not yet been published. To conduct in-depth research on the issue, he lived in a neighborhood where petitioners gather on the southern outskirts of Beijing for two months. He shared a room with ten or eight people or stayed in a tiny room in a crowded courtyard.
A number of people are sent by local governments to block petitioners from talking to officials of the central government. They gather at the hutong where the National Petition Bureau is located. “They disturb everyone. They would even drag a girl if she happens to walk by. They act like rascals. They’ve gone crazy,” Xu said.
The hutong was full of people the first time Xu went there. He was stopped shortly after entering the lane. “Someone dragged my arm and asked me where I came from. I said I was from Henan province. My words caused a commotion. Several people pulled me over and asked me which part of Henan I was from. I answered Kaifeng. The people who were sent by Kaifeng government swiftly came to me and beat me. ‘Have you petitioned to the local government of Kaifeng?’ they asked. I answered I that I hadn’t. ‘Then you’ve violated the law. You should have gone to the local government first,’ they said while kicking and punching me. My clothes was soon marked with shoe prints.” Xu was actually wearing a suit that day and thought that he could not have been mistaken as a petitioner.
He saw an old lady with white hair another time he was visiting the hutong. “I was a few meters away from her. I saw her being cornered. Someone punched her to the ground, and then several people encircled her and kicked her. I was astonished. I hit someone on the head. They hit back and pushed me down to the ground. They then ran away. I got up and chased after them, ” Xu said.
Xu exploded with rage that day. “I cursed these people. I said that you guys are animals. The lady is older than your mothers. Why the hell do you beat her? ” These people were dumbfounded at my words. No one said anything back to me.
After this article was available online, some readers also posted interesting comments:
—Admirable. Is it worthwhile to do all this for this country?
—Of course. I can’t do it myself. That’s why I admire him even more. The more people like Xu we have, the better chances we have to make a change in the political system.
—Does he know that what he will be faced with? He won’t have money. He won’t have a private life. If even a woman is willing to follow him, they will have to wander around and could never settle down. He won’t have children. And his parents will live in constant fear because of him. Of course he knows all about this. But most importantly, I believe what he is doing is completely useless. He would be murdered on the street someday.
—I think his actions will gradually make a difference. At least those unscrupulous ones know that there are people who oppose them.