Person of the Week: Yu Jianrong

Person of the Week: Yu Jianrong

CDT is expanding its wiki beyond the Grass-Mud Horse Lexicon to include short biographies of public intellectuals, cartoonists, human rights activists, and other people pushing for change in China. The wiki is a work in progress.


Yu Jianrong with one of his paintings of a petitioner. (Source: Southern Metropolis Weekly)

Yu Jianrong is a rural sociologist and advocate for the rural poor. He is the director of the Rural Development Institute at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences.

Yu has firsthand experience with the struggle faced by those on the margins of Chinese society. He was born in 1962 in Hengyang, Hunan Province, four years shy of the Cultural Revolution. His father had been a Kuomintang guerilla, and so his family was stripped of its household registration (hukou) as punishment. Without a hukou, Yu could not legally go to school, and the family was ineligible for government rations and clothes. Yu’s mother tried to move herself and her children to her hometown, but the villagers rejected them as a “black household.”

As the Cultural Revolution wound down, Yu made a place for himself in journalism, business, and finally the academy. He graduated from Hunan Normal University, where he stayed on to teach until 2003. He earned his PhD in law from the China Rural Issues Institute at Central China Normal University in 2001. Yu went on to a postdoctoral position at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, where he has stayed ever since. Yu remains deeply engaged with marginalized communities through extensive fieldwork and advocacy. He has devoted his career to exposing the mistreatment of petitioners, and institutionalized disadvantages such as the hukou system and the challenges faced by migrant workers and their families.

Netizens know Yu best for his 2011 Weibo campaign “Take a Photo, Save a Child Beggar.” Yu called on the public to post photos of child beggars in order to shed light on the abuse they suffer at the hands of the adults who control them. Many of the children had been crippled and maimed in order to make them easier to control. The posts transformed into a lost-and-found board for missing children.

Yu is at once an “establishment intellectual” and the “poster boy for the Chinese democracy movement,” as Andreas Fulda of the University of Nottingham has said. Yu has written bold criticisms of the Chinese political system and offered recommendations for reform. Foreign Policy named him a 2012 Global Thinker for his “10-Year Outline of China’s Social and Political Development.” In December 2016, he proffered ten “do not’s” to the central government, warning them that there is “a price to pay for using the constitution as toilet paper.” His liberal writing has cost him his WeChat account, which disappeared in late 2016, but he continues to post to Weibo as of January 2017.

Yu has found release—and a new approach to the problems he researches—in art. He has painted portraits of petitioners and curated an exhibition of portraits of missing children.

The archive of Yu’s WeChat account is available from

Entry written by Anne Henochowicz.

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