Xi Jinping’s ongoing crackdown on civil society and parallel drive to reinforce ideological orthodoxy has affected rights lawyers and activists, academics, and journalists, among others. While the vast majority of stories on these crackdowns have focused on liberal-minded casualties and the reining in of “Western” ideas of universal values, the recent detention of a young neo-Maoist intellectual shows that Xi’s campaign to maintain conformity is not limited to the “rightist” or classically liberal side of the ideological spectrum. Zhang Yunfan, a 24-year-old Beijing University graduate, was arrested for “gathering a crowd to disrupt public order” last November while attending a study group session that he had organized in Guangzhou. Authorities announced that he would be in detention at an unspecified location for six months. The South China Morning Post’s Jun Mai last month reported on calls from fellow “leftist” scholars for Zhang’s release, noting mutual wariness between China’s far ideological left and CCP authorities:
One of the signatories of the letter, which was circulated on Maoist websites, was Qian Liqun, an expert on post-Mao literary and cultural criticism, and a retired Peking University professor.
Others included prominent Maoist intellectuals Kong Qingdong, who also teaches at the university, and Fan Jinggang, the founder of the Wuyou Bookstore, a popular resource for Maoist supporters.
[…] Maoists are critical of China’s current political and economic systems, which they believe betray Mao Zedong’s vision of a planned economy. They also blame the country’s market reforms for a growing wealth gap and corruption.
Support for the movement has grown in recent years and as a result, their gatherings are closely watched by the authorities. However, supporters are less likely to be arrested than activists or intellectuals who push for Western-style democracy. [Source]
News of the detention comes as China cracks down on all forms of “subversion”, imprisoning hundreds of activists and lawyers, typically for “rightist” behaviour such as promoting human rights or democracy.
But China’s leftist intellectuals have enjoyed relatively more space to express views that are out of step with government orthodoxy — authorities have typically been cautious about attempting to silence them for fear of creating a backlash in the Communist country.
[…] China’s outspoken leftists believe the country’s political and economic reforms have abandoned Mao’s goal of transforming the nation into a Communist utopia — citing the growing gap between the rich and poor. [Source]
Following the call for Zhang’s release, a WeChat essay circulated on the Chinese internet last week. In the essay, an anonymous author recalls their own experience with detention and official harassment after attempting to organize a study group. The author highlights their reticent and accommodating reaction to the experience, and implores readers not to be discouraged to the point go inaction by the current political situation. The essay has been harmonized, but is archived by CDT Chinese. An extended excerpt has been translated below:
Yesterday I saw the confession of Peking University student Zhang Yunfan. This youngster, born in 1993, organized a study group to discuss topics determined to be excessively sensitive, and was arrested by Guangzhou police for “gathering a crowd to disrupt social order” along with several other group members who were also thrown behind bars.
Today many friends asked me my opinion on these matters, and there’s so much that I can’t avoid saying, but I really shouldn’t say.
I don’t approve of his so-called “leftist” system of values, but I completely understand and even sympathize with his experience, and I am totally in favor of his notion of freedom of speech. But I really must say, Yunfan’s incident may not be as simple as it appears, many of the details in his confession are vague and we only have parts of the logic of this situation. If the authorities wanted to suspend the study group, they wouldn’t have been stupid enough to apprehend them publicly—cell phone photos and videos would promptly circulate online, which could turn into a public incident that could put the local government under public scrutiny.
The study group seems rather harmless, but you know these three words are extremely sensitive in many contexts: Youth, gather a crowd, thinking—all these sensitive elements are present, and it can get even more sensitive if ideological tendencies are involved. These last few years I’ve seen many study organizations gradually disappear after becoming involved in these questions, and a study group that I myself founded has been dealing with these issues since its beginning.
Even though in study group circles these are taboo subjects, I still want to express my point of view, not discussing value judgements, but just speaking of my own prior experiences.
That year I was 16, my first year in senior high school. Because I was dissatisfied with some social phenomena, I proceeded to post the essay online “A Good Mayor Arrives, and Destroys Nanjing”. At that time Meng Fei had the television program “Meng Fei Reads the News” and he later commented on this essay, which was re-published on many platforms. The next afternoon, the headmaster’s assistant unexpectedly came to our classroom looking for me, and took me to a conference room. Pushing open the door, I saw six people in police uniforms along with my middle school principal and several vice principals. At that moment I was scared blind.
One after another, they asked me: are there any members of your family in Taiwan? Are there any Americans or people from other foreign countries providing you with financial aid? Was there someone who incited you to write the essay?
Our talk continued for over an hour, and its transcript extended for seven pages, then they had me put my fingerprints on it [sign the document].
Crying, I returned to the classroom. My deskmate asked why I was crying, had I cheated on my homework and been caught by the teacher?
I didn’t know how to answer his question. I looked in his eyes and it was the first time in my life that I felt an immensely lonely feeling.
That was my system of values rapidly colliding with my adolescence. The police and the school leaders all said that this event was too extreme. I admitted my error, even though in my heart I didn’t know what I had done wrong.
This event made me more taciturn, spending my free time hiding out in the library, the only place in the world that I could breathe freely. That period of silence extended for two years until I erupted on the eve of my high school graduation, when I was giving a speech underneath the flag that I’d stolen from a manuscript prepared by a teacher. Crying, I asked myself a question: to whom had I dedicated my youth, after all?
Up until now, I still ask myself that.
After studying some books and walking some roads I understand that this society needs indignance. People are at once uneasy and dissatisfied, and this is often what propels a society forward.
But even more important than indignance is construction, is action. Only action can bring about change, and only change is power.
The youth’s toughest barrier to cross is the anger that comes with action. Even though I’d already strived to exercise restraint, I could still run into things that cannot but make you angry.
First I’ll explain what left me a deep impression, I launched a study tour known as “Thinking on the Run,” and we held a meeting in Shanghai, but since there were too many who had signed up we received some pressure from the local government. Then the Shanghai police directly contacted the Jiangsu Public Security office, who sent more than 20 police officers. I disappeared for three days, and my father, mother, girlfriend at the time, college roommate, and several core members of my study group were all summoned by the police at the same time of the same day, but in different locations.
So, that campaign was cancelled, but many of the students participating in the program had already arrived in in Shanghai, and were later compelled to divide into groups and go to their academic advisors’ homes to touch base. That year I had just turned 20 years old, and many experiences from that time are inconvenient to talk about today, but those several days that I disappeared were the most frightened and desperate of my life.
At that time I had several options.
Number one, publish an open letter describing my own tragic experience, which would likely gather support from many friends and elders, but the reading of which would most definitely be prohibited.
Number two, silence. Absorb the experience, and allow the study group to continue.
At that time, I chose the latter.
I did not want my suffering to be in vain, so by all possible means, I wanted the study group to continue.
Every era has its own limitations, and as a member of “this generation,” I would like to transcend this era.
Afterwards, I took the initiative to invite the staff of the relevant departments who had called on me to a meal. After chatting with them, I discovered that they were also ordinary people, with families and emotions. I said that I only had one goal, to let the study group exist, and that I would make any compromise to make that happen. One relevant department staff member said, “Don’t you know? The records concerning you and your study group are already stacked high on my work desk. We know you better than you know yourself—your whereabouts, family background, who you meet each day, what you talk about, all these things are very clear. But you must understand, this is our job. I suggest that you host a major event, communicate about it with us in advance, and we’ll come up with ways to help you coordinate it.”
Later I invited the relevant department staff members to visit our study group. After they listened to our meeting I felt there would be no problem. A few of them were even moved by the atmosphere of the scene, and they recommended that their own children come to take part in the group.
After changing our thinking, the study group was not only quickly “desensitized,” but also won support from many government departments. But I kept myself alert, not wanting to lose my independence.
The latest [WeChat] public account of our Ying Ming reading group was banned because it recommended to followers a particular sensitive movie. Every time I encounter a problem like this, I remind myself to be flexible, and then to be even more so. “If there is no freedom to criticize, then praise has no meaning” has become popular jargon, but this is very difficult for people to put into practice. In value-fractured Chinese society, maintaining the mentality of freedom of speech is very difficult because it requires not only our own freedom of speech, but also others’ freedom—especially those we detest and find shameful—and this is not easy to achieve. Freedom of speech requires us to treat others as human beings, not as idiots. As humans just like we are—and certainly not as gods.
A lot of words have not yet been spoken, and a lot of emotions can only be understood by those who have truly felt them. I am very much in favor of Zhang Yunfan’s heroic pursuit of freedom, and I very much sympathize with his and his group’s experience. I hope that everything goes well for them in the future.
Don’t idle your critical thinking because the road ahead is misty, don’t be timid with your innovation due to the current political situation, don’t hesitate from taking action due to frivolous criticism from others. I often use these words to encourage myself, and also to encourage others. […] [Chinese]