Mu Tian: On the week since my open letter (originally published on the public account "M. Mu Tian’s Pickaxe")
Dearest friends, whether I’ve met you yet or not:
I’ve carefully read all the essays you’ve published over the past week, every comment on WeChat, Weibo, Zhihu, or Facebook. I’ve read every character of the thousands upon thousands of private messages to my public WeChat account. The bread, pears, ugli fruit, pineapples, blueberries, and jackfruit sent by my classmates were so sweet; the note of support my teacher brought me, "hoping you are able to get back to being your normal self," was so warm. Every one of those short-lived, censored essays meant a lot.
A “thank you” can hardly express my gratitude.
Because I know that this kind of concern, assistance, and support all mean bearing burdens, risks, and costs that shouldn’t have to be borne.
A classmate who reposted People’s Daily’s commentary about this matter was forced by his father to delete the post and close his WeChat account.
A worker friend who shared "The Schoolmate Mu Tian That I Know" was hunted down and asked "what are you up to? What have you got planned?" This worker friend stepped forward and said, "the more they tell me not to post, the more I’ll post. If you tell me not to, I’ll do it anyway."
Schoolmate Li Yiming, furthermore, started a petition demanding that school authorities properly repair the damage their interviews have done, strengthen institutional controls, fully guarantee students’ legal rights and interests, and improve mass supervision and restriction mechanisms in the interview system. By now, almost 200 teachers, students, and alumni have signed, and it’s very possible that these people, including Li Yiming herself, have now borne the same kind of interview pressure as myself ….
Over the past few days, I’ve been woken at 4 a.m. by dreams in which friends have come under pressure because of their shared articles, signed petitions, blockchain inscriptions, or big-character posters. This anxiety is because I’ve brought trouble on so many friends.
I’m anxious not only for my friends, but also for my family, because I know only too well how anxious they are for me. If anything happens to me, they really might suffer physical and emotional collapse.
On top of the anxiety, I feel frustration.
The frustration isn’t because of the few scattered rumors smearing me: they can’t survive the slightest scrutiny, and the good will out.
Instead it’s because, in the days when I’ve been forced to keep quiet, I had no way to see my friends as before, no way to express my gratitude to each of them in turn, no way to add my own voice on the topic I was sincerely following, no way to lend support when I saw worker friends in my circle courageously resisting. I knew, moreover, that my family’s mood was relaxing day by day, under the premise that I’d been completely silenced and "won’t ever get involved in that kind of situation again."
Before deciding to write this piece, I felt constantly conflicted. I worried that the essay would be like a time bomb, blowing up my family, which had been gradually calming down, and causing a repeat of everything I went through on April 23. I’m afraid that my family might really cut ties with me because of this, or even fall into long-term illness.
Even so, I still feel now a deep need and responsibility to explain to everyone about what really happened that night, how the school’s account of the interview diverges from the facts, the psychological conflicts I’ve gone through over the past week, and why I’ve decided to continue stepping forward.
1. What, in the end, happened that night
From the very start of the midnight interview, the university teacher’s main point of inquiry was whether I’d been in contact with the media, and whether I’d publicize the school’s response.
First, the teacher had heard that I was in touch with the media, but had no evidence at all, and so repeatedly asked if I’d had any contact with them since April 20. My mother said that my "every act and every move were all under complete control." After I denied it, the teacher said "I don’t know whether you’re lying, or someone’s trying to frame you." My mother [said she] thought I’d "overestimated her own ability," and was "acting out of good intentions," but that because I was "naïve," I’d been exploited by foreign forces, but "could still be saved."
After that, the teacher was suspicious that a chat screenshot about the school’s response that had leaked online had come from me. I said it "definitely wasn’t me who sent it." The teacher replied, "no one has told me it was you who sent it, but even your mother agrees that it’s reasonable to suspect you." Because my mother thought that "there were ten other students who submitted the application, and they’ve all kept quiet. You’re the only one who insisted on completing the entire freedom of information process involving the dean, head teacher, Party secretary, and Youth League secretary, taking photos when you were done talking to them."
The reason I’d been met with suspicion and questioning was that on April 20, when the school issued its reply, I’d insisted on taking away the freedom of information response.
In front of my mother, the teacher recalled the scene on April 20: when I’d made my demand about taking away the letter of response, one of the other school officials said they could temporarily look after it for me, and I could get it any time after I’d graduated. I asked this official if they could give it to me after May 11, after I’d submitted my graduation thesis. After she had replied, I asked for a written, signed guarantee on the matter from the school. At last, the official gave me the response on the spot.
Recalling that school official’s attitude while giving me the response, the teacher asked me, "don’t you think she had already lost all patience and trust in you?" She said she hadn’t understood why I was in such a hurry to get my hands on the response, and felt that "May 11 has no special significance," that there’d been no "XX (a certain [sensitive] historical incident)" on May 11.
Having heard the teacher’s whole narration, my mother was very angry. "This bunch of teachers, this bunch of school officials, I really feel too disappointed by you." From this point, my mother felt that the letter of response was a "ticking bomb," saying "how can you realistically hold onto it?" As for why I’d absolutely insisted on getting the response letter in my hands, I said, "because it had to be mine, no other reason …. I felt that getting it in my hands was part of seeing it through to the end. Anyway, that was my thinking at the time, and I think I feel the same way now."
The teacher said that the reason she had come to find me in the middle of the night was that there had been a new development: "If there were no new circumstances, why would it be worth coming to find you?" But when I then tried to find out about these new circumstances, the teacher said "I don’t know anything about them." She also refused to say where she had heard that there were "circumstances," saying only that "someone wanted to let me know."
Asking whether or not I’d given the response letter to anyone else, the teacher said, "I don’t know if someone else found something on you, but there’s definitely something up." But when I asked what that might actually be, she said she didn’t know, herself.
When I asked what the situation was with the "foreign forces" the teacher had mentioned, saying "I really want to know more details; that could better convince me of the seriousness of the situation," the teacher said it would be better for me simply to believe her, and not demand to know about it.
At the same time, she hinted that the matter had been designated as "subversive" at high levels, and there was a possibility of criminal verdicts: "This won’t just be school citations. If someone wants to charge you, it’d be for treason or splitting the country." During this, my mother remained silent. Then the teacher added, "but as long as there’s any contact with any media, or any harmful influence toward Peking University, the blame won’t fall on others’ heads. Only yours," because "you were the only one who took that thing away." Afterwards, my mother kept referring to that "only one" again and again.
At the same time, the teacher said "it might not have been me standing here this evening; it could have been the university vice president or president," because "the president hears about all this trouble of yours immediately," indicating the gravity of the situation.
Regarding the matter’s subsequent handling, the teacher thought that I should graduate without incident, and suggested "don’t use your phone or WeChat for now," unless I needed to contact family members, which would be OK. Using the requirement for Peking University teachers to obtain approval from school authorities before accepting interviews as an example, she explained, "you think you can write something, make your voice heard through the media, or post on your own public WeChat account, thinking these are your freedoms? Think again. Let me tell you, kid: you have no real freedoms …. When it comes to you, I think no freedom is best at the moment."
My mother thought that the teacher’s suggestion was the only way out: "That’s your only option. I wouldn’t even be this worried if you got physically injured. Really, do you know how I’m feeling now …? If you keep getting exploited by others, you’re done for. Our family is done for. I’m done for …. Forget about the earlier stuff. What the teacher suggested later is the only way out. To avoid this trouble, your only option is to give up your WeChat circle, account, and phone contacts, and to only keep in touch with family members. Stay as far away as possible." She even said that she would pick me up from school every day to have peace of mind.
I refused these demands, again and again stressing that I could really control myself; but faced with my mother’s pleading not to have to live in fear every day, I answered: "I understand what you mean. No one wants to live like that." Then, to set my mother’s mind at ease, I said I could stay in touch with her every day by WeChat and phone, update her every day on the progress of my graduation thesis, and even "livestream me writing my thesis." But my mother thought that this attitude of mine showed that I fundamentally didn’t understand her, while the teacher thought that I still hadn’t grasped the seriousness of the situation.
Later in the talk, the teacher and my mother realized that I was recording it, and demanded that I hand over my phone. When I firmly refused, my mother got emotionally agitated. The teacher left halfway through our argument. Soon after, my mother and I got into a fierce quarrel over whether or not I would delete the recording and other related data. Finally, on my dormmates’ advice, I was taken out of the dormitory building by my mother.
The above material is from my memory. I’m responsible for its accuracy.
2. Aspects of the school’s account that diverge from the facts
In the interview on the evening of April 19, the teacher said that only two students had demanded to follow the whole freedom of information process through, in order to dissuade me from completing the freedom of information response process on Friday April 20. In fact, there were eight students in all who showed up at the beginning. Of them, based on incomplete information, at least seven demanded to stay the course, and certainly proceeded to their own departmental offices to complete the whole freedom of information process.
In the interview early in the morning of April 23, the teacher said that I was the only student who’d taken an original response letter. This "only" point is what my mother later kept repeating, to the extent that she got headaches whenever she thought about it. In fact, another student, from the law school, had also taken an original response letter, and obtained it more easily.
In the interview early in the morning of April 23, the teacher said that there were "new circumstances," "foreign forces," and a high-level designation of "subversion." In fact, when asked for specifics, the teacher said "I don’t know what circumstances," "someone wanted to let me know," "it’s best if you believe me, and don’t demand to know," and was unwilling or unable to provide evidence. But the official media "People’s Daily" published a commentary entitled "How to Respectfully Listen to ‘Voices of Youth’," defining this matter as a problem of communication style and methods. This constitutes high-level denial of any "subversion" designation.
In the interview early in the morning of April 23, the teacher said that my recording the interview "violated the law," and so demanded that "it’s only fair and reasonable for you to open your phone and delete the recording." In fact, I looked through all the laws of the People’s Republic of China and found no basis on which my act of unilaterally recording could be suspected of violating the law. On that occasion, I had no choice but to make the recording as evidence, in order to protect my own legal rights and interests.
3: The mental struggles of the previous week
The college teacher I know is a big sister who studies Japanese and loves cats. From the beginning, she also hoped for a flexible handling of the problem, and made friends with me. Amid the previous interview, she treated me to lunch at the Shaoyuan Western Restaurant [on campus], candidly sharing with me her personal family background, her experience growing up, and her fondness for the book “Martyr’s Shrine.” However, she may have had something too troubling to mention, which led to the incident that night.
I understand that other teachers would have likely taken similar actions under these circumstances. So, what we wanted was a better mechanism rather than to lay blame on the specific person who did the job.
This is why I wanted all along to issue a statement thanking all those concerned with me, and expressing my views on this mechanism.
Afraid that my family would worry, I let them know in advance that I would be issuing a statement. For the statement that everyone saw with large blank areas, those areas were actually filled with words initially.
The complete statement was:
Heartfelt thanks to everyone who offered me their concern and help, I would like to return my highest respects to all of you!
I have returned to campus.
At this juncture, we need to remain even more calm and rational, united as one, and continue to promote a freedom of information mechanism, anti-sexual harassment mechanism, improved interview mechanism, and protections of students’ fundamental rights at the substantial and procedural levels.
This was my intention from the beginning, for all of us to see:
When participating in campus affairs, keep matters out in the open, do not mince words. This is not to push certain students or teachers towards the heart of the struggle, but to promote a real solution on a systemic level;
More and more students are coming forward despite the pressure of potential interviews, not for self-promotion, but so their basic rights are not infringed upon, so that more students can participate in campus affairs by their own initiative and not be suppressed.
We are all seeds. United and working in concert, inevitably we will break through and flower.
On Wednesday April 25, three family members flagged me down at the entrance to my dorm building, requesting that I leave only two sentences in the statement: “I’ve already returned to school and resumed classes, thank you all.” They said this was for my own good. I told my family that I understood their thinking was “for my good,” but that their idea of what is “good for me” and the one in my own heart was not entirely the same. I could check with my family to verify that my recounting is true, but weighing every word and finally deciding whether to submit it and how to do it, in the end is my own personal right.
My family cited terminal illness and severed relationships to pressure me not to send out the rest of my statement. “Do you agree to only send these two sentences and not say anything else? If you agree, I’ll go. If you disagree, I’ll also go, but these are two different "go"s. If you agree I can sleep in peace; but if you don’t, I don’t know where I’ll go—maybe directly to the hospital, maybe down a dead end.”
I was scared that my family might actually suffer health problems, but also didn’t want to give everyone the false impression that everything was fine, or that in the face of pressure I had chosen surrender, so I left a large blank space in the handwritten version of my statement.
As mentioned earlier, at the start, the school’s partial misrepresentation of the facts and exaggeration of the negatives agitated my mother’s state of mind; this has continued to develop up till now, while the school has played everything down and hasn’t openly responded to the demands in my open letter. However, all the coverage of this matter has been thoroughly deleted. All my struggles have turned into internal conflicts within my family, and my family relations have forced my silence.
That night, while facing my family in great trouble, I felt as though my heart were being cut out.
These past few days I’ve been thinking continuously, how do I express what I’ve just said? After I say it, what is the greatest possible pressure that I will face?
While I’ve long understood that family is a product of private ownership, I still blame myself for doing things that could burden them. I am still scared that my family’s health could collapse because of me. I also continuously think how should this pressure be confronted?
By the beginning of 2018, I wrote “How They Control You Using the Best Things in Your Heart,” which include your love and guilt for your family. Having experienced family misfortune, I know even better how the guilty feeling that you have for your family can easily pull people from their right paths.
In 2013, the day after my father suddenly passed away, I wrote in my diary:
“What if… I change my direction? Imagine from now on you are the most ordinary person who cares about your family, don’t think the way that you used to, choose a major I like well enough and a leisurely job, and live life aloof from worldly affairs? I don’t know.”
In 2016, I looked back three years at that sorrow and struggle:
“It even reached the point that (after my father passed away) for those two days I suddenly thought, if I change directions and no longer want to be a journalist, I can smoothly graduate from university, find a stable job, and smoothly and steadily live my life. Perhaps this would allow my mom some relief. Fortunately my half sister found me for a heart-to-heart, telling me some things that now seem very apparent, that in any event I shouldn’t compromise my ideals.”
And now, I see it like this:
Compared to the injustice and suffering facing the countless laborers’ families of this world, the suffering of myself and my family is insignificant;
Compared to the guilt of the “vested interests” of class struggle, how light is my guilt about my family.
So, how do I dare not to fight? It is clear that the world will force you into battle!
However, I can’t help but admit that my family, and especially my mother, have made great sacrifices;
“Those things that you most want, your daughter can’t give them to you.”
4: Why I Decided to Continue Standing Up
To be honest, the reason I now continue to give voice, compared with my initial reason, has also changed.
The most direct reason for my open letter was definitely the impact on myself and my family. I thought that it could help to safeguard my personal rights, make the school give the actual truth, and restore the relations between myself and my family. But, I soon learned that if it were only for myself and my family, I would have quickly cowered in compromise.
Admittedly, I heard that some school official said at a certain department’s meeting that my character wasn’t good, that I had a psychological issue arising from family misfortune; but I know, I’m not afraid of my own slanted shadow, if there were someone who thought that way, they should say so under their own name, and say it out frankly.
Now, if I don’t continue, if I no longer care about “similar rights defense related affairs,” the teacher probably won’t come looking for me, my family’s attitude towards me will likely return to normal, and I’d again be able to enjoy the happiness and warmth provided to Beijing’s middle class—a comfort like the white petals of the early summer hawthorn trees.
But, if that really was the case, the openness and perfection of the freedom of information mechanism, the anti-sexual harassment mechanism, and the interview mechanism would not easily be mentioned; even if we had these so-called mechanisms, they’d likely be the products of closed-door meetings, and ordinary students who wanted to maintain their rights to participate in the formulation, management, and oversight would find it difficult to do so.
I can’t let my junior students continue their fight for their full lawful rights as sullenly as before;
I can’t let the next Gao Yan be compelled to suffer in silence, even at the end of her life.
On Tuesday, April 24, I felt a bit calmer, and was continuously thinking: I am only an ordinary person, doing an ordinary thing, in no way am I a “warrior”, a “hero.” If I was considered a “warrior” or a “hero,” it could only be said that this era and this system is too full of abnormality and irrationality.
At the same time, I also reflected on the fact that as I was writing my self-introduction, I got an unusual amount of attention doing an ordinary thing just because I was a PKU student. At the same time, worker friends who were resisting received much less attention and resources. If I can’t stand with those worker friends, there is no doubt that I have stolen attention and resources that should really belong to them.
That day, I wrote in my diary: “we must cherish all that we have, and even more we must speak for those people who have a hard time being heard.”
I hope I have the capability to defend more people, to help more people, and not the opposite.
I see the pneumoconiosis, I see the work injuries, I see the crane worker friends as they resist.
On Friday, April 27, I was walking down the road, watching the worker friends curled up under a bridge in the hot afternoon.
On Wednesday, April 25, I was eating dinner, a worker friend came and sat next to me. She said she could only secretly sit to rest here as there was no camera in sight, and without that place she would not be allowed to rest.
International Workers’ Day will soon be here; so many workers want to rest, it’s so very hard.
Seeing the worker friends standing together with other worker friends urged me to summon my courage: compared to the situations of these people who are owed wages, worked overtime, without vacation, with injuries and illnesses, and not guaranteed food or clothing, the pressure that I face myself is really not so terrible, and I have no justification to retreat in weakness. Only if we continue to mobilize with courage, to stand up and fight for a better system, only then can we guarantee that our classmates and workmates can stand and exercise their legal rights, only then will they not be hit so disastrously.
From April 23 until now, my WeChat public account “MuTianWuHua” has received 1774 yuan in reward donations. After deducting the 1% service charge, that’s 1756.26 yuan. On behalf of all my friends, I’ll take this donation money and hand it over to all the workers fighting pneumoconiosis, even though it really is an utterly inadequate measure.
Henceforth, I will stand together with the world’s laborers.
Finally, as a PKU graduate, I’ll still have to talk about all the banal old topics: how we should love PKU, about what the spirit of PKU is.
A week ago in the middle of the night as I was interrogated, I was asked twice: “do you wish ill upon PKU?”
I replied: If I wished PKU ill, I wouldn’t be concerned with PKU; whatever happens to PKU I wouldn’t care about, I’d only be concerned with my own affairs.
Love for PKU is not complicated, it is to look after PKU. The spirit of PKU is also very simple, it is to break through the social indifference and isolation, to offer an earnest and positive voice for both the most oppressed and most powerful.
This type of love, this type of spirit, certainly shouldn’t only belong to PKU, or to the people of PKU.
April 30, 2018 [Chinese]
Josh Rudolph, Sandra Severdia, and Ya Ke Xi also contributed to this translation.