Minds Unfettered and the Rival Spirits of May Fourth

Minds Unfettered and the Rival Spirits of May Fourth

Last week brought the 100th anniversary of the start of the May Fourth movement, a pivotal moment in China’s post-imperial history triggered by anger at the country’s mistreatment in the Versailles settlement after World War One. The Chinese Communist Party, founded in the movement’s aftermath, aggressively asserts its claim to the long contested “Spirit of May Fourth.” Marking the centenary at China Heritage, Sinologist Geremie Barmé wrote that “today, May Fourth as commemorated in the People’s Republic of China is entwined with the distorting history of the Communist Party.”

The May Fourth demonstrations of 1919 were organised at Peking University (PKU) then located in the heart of Beijing. During the Soviet-inspired reorganisation of tertiary educational institutions in the early 1950s, PKU was relocated and occupied the campus of Yenching University far to the north-west of the city. Both colleges were radically reshaped to create a Communist Party-dominated institution that lay claim to the name and reputation of both pre-1949 universities and thereupon set out to betray both. That is the official May Fourth Spirit of Peking University today.

At the 4 May 2019 PKU celebration, Hao Ping 郝平, the Party-President of the university gave a trade-mark ‘slogan-speech’ […] in the standard militant tone of a Party apparatchik:

Today, in commemorating May Fourth and championing the May Fourth Spirit, we must ensure that we meld that Spirit with our National Spirit and the Spirit of the New Epoch [of Xi Jinping]. Our Patriotic Fervour, Determination to Build a Strong Nation and Commitment to Repaying the Nation must be at one with the Great Enterprise of National Rejuvenation. It must find expression in [politicised] moral education and personal cultivation. In this process this May Fourth Spirit must be welded onto the Souls of Our Youth. Our university must continue to pursue without cease our work in Enhancing Academic Riches and Seeking the Truth. [Source]

In the same post, Barmé translates an account by former Beijing Institute of Technology professor Lin Hai of the events of another recent anniversary: that, on April 28, of the founding of Tsinghua University. A group of alumni had planned to mark the occasion by paying their respects at a well-known monument to intellectual freedom on the campus, and by delivering in person a letter of protest at the recent suspension of law professor Xu Zhangrun. Photographs of the visit were included in a separate post.

On 14 April, Yan Huai and Sun Nutao wrote and signed ‘An Open Letter to President Qiu Yong, Tsinghua University’ which they sent by express post to Qiu Yong along with that first public open letter. Qiu had them returned unopened. As a result, we decided that, on the day of the annual commemoration of Tsinghua’s founding [28 April 2019], after having first paid our respects to the Great Scholars of the past at the Wang Guowei Commemorative Stele [on the Tsinghua campus] then, in keeping with ‘A Spirit of Independence and a Mind Unfettered’ [as celebrated by Chen Yinque in the epitaph he wrote for the Wang Guowei stele in 1929] we would hand over our letters and the full list of signatories to the university authorities in person.

This proposal was widely discussed on the Tsinghua Graduates’ WeChat group and news of our plans quickly spread. The university authorities were put on the back foot and resorted to an skulduggerous ruse to frustrate this plan by encircling the Wang Guowei Stele with a steel construction barrier. How could they possibly imagine that an ‘Independent Spirit and Unfettered Mind’ could be enclosed by such a crude manoeuvre? Such behaviour merely served to incense our fellow graduates and collectively they decided to demonstrate their irate resistance publicly. [The visitors were ultimately allowed through the barrier in pairs to pay their respects.]

[…] Today, Professor Xu Zhangrun was also present and everyone went over to say hello and inquire about his health — Professor Xu had only recently requested leave from Tsinghua to seek medical treatment in Japan, but when he arrived at Beijing Airport his departure had been blocked by Two Toughs. Evidently, the authorities were indecently frustrating even this act of common human decency. The professor expressed his gratitude for the support of the Tsinghua graduates and happily agreed to have his picture taken with everyone. Many young students and graduates also took the opportunity to take pictures of this historical moment or made short videos.

Thereafter, Yan Huai led the gathering in a recitation of the Epitaph that Master Chen Yinque had written for the Wang Guowei Stele [and carved on its verso side], after which we all stayed on chatting in small groups. A youngster with a mini digital camera interviewed Professor Xu, who said:

My understanding of today’s events is that old graduates of Tsinghua University have come to pay their respects to Masters Wang and Chen as an act of reverence for our intellectual forefathers and as a way of showing support for the continuing importance of having ‘A Spirit of Independence and a Mind Unfettered’. It is a message that has been obstructed by various things for far too long. It is exactly what China needs today more than ever. [Source]

South China Morning Post’s Mimi Lau and Jun Mai reported last week on Xu’s travel ban and current circumstances:

Sources familiar with the situation told the South China Morning Post that Xu was also barred from leaving the country. Earlier this month, border control officers at Beijing Capital International Airport stopped him from taking a flight to Japan and told him he could not leave the country. The officers did not elaborate, but Tsinghua had approved the trip and paid for the flights, sources said.

[…] “You can’t avoid getting burned if you bathe in the sun,” Xu was quoted by a friend of saying. “Writing is our duty, [we] must carry on.”

[…] “We must say what needs to be said. What else should a scholar concern himself with? Other than the greater good of our country? It’s our call of duty.”

People who had seen Xu recently also described him as “healthy and calm”, dispelling rumours that he was fighting cancer.

He has spent much of the time since his suspension reading and visiting friends, and his grace under pressure has won him more sympathisers.

One source said that during a night out at the theatre the professor was mobbed by people wanting to shake his hand and get his autograph. [Source]

In a blog post at The New York Review of Books last month, Ian Johnson described the support for Xu as “the most serious critique of the system in more than a decade”:

The movement started quietly enough, with several brilliant essays written by a Chinese academic that drew an attack from his university bosses, which in turn stirred a backlash among Chinese public intellectuals. None of this means that the Communist Party is getting ready to loosen its icy grip over the country, but it is a remarkable series of events that is challenging what was supposed to be possible in Xi’s China.

[… Effective censorship] makes it hard for public intellectuals to effect change. But they perform another, important function: reflecting the Zeitgeist of an era. Even though Xi is personally popular among many in Chinese society, my impression in traveling widely through different parts of China and observing different strata of society is that people are also conscious of a sense of loss—that the dynamism of the 1990s and 2000s has been turned into something more rigid and stagnant. Even China’s vaunted economic development, which for decades masked all sorts of popular discontent, is slowing, and the government lacks any impetus for reform that would create new motors of growth.

Xu’s case is therefore about far more than another dissident’s being silenced or a few lonely voices speaking out in protest. Instead, it captures a sense that the government has overplayed its hand on many fronts and that opposition is building.

All of this might well be impossible to sustain. But over the past century, even during the darkest times, the underlying humanism of Chinese culture has never been extinguished and has even, at critical moments, reasserted itself. This might seem too romantically hopeful, but it reminds me of a saying from traditional Chinese thought: wu ji bi fan. When things reach an extreme, they must move in the opposite direction. We can only hope that this pendulum is now at its farthest extent, and that we are witnessing a slow but steady swing in the opposite direction. [Source]

Barmé described Xu’s case in similar terms in an introduction to his collection of commentary, translations, and related material at China Heritage. (See CDT’s overview of earlier instalments in the series, now reposted at China Heritage.)

In the persecution of Xu Zhangrun, which had already surreptitiously begun at the behest of Chinese officialdom in August 2018, some of the country’s leading academics and intellectuals identify a ‘case study’ in the broader malaise affecting the country’s educational and cultural life. For years, it has been widely recognised that even the limited intellectual freedoms tolerated under previous Communist Party leaders were under increased threat due to the implementation of revived ideological controls in the publishing, academic and cultural spheres. Since 2014, and in particular in light of the trial and jailing in September that year of the respected, and moderate, Uyghur academic Ilham Tohti, even the more reluctant independent-minded educators in China’s universities and schools have been tremulously aware of the rising tide of Communist Party obscurantism.

The ‘Xu Zhangrun Incident’, as some call it, is not merely about intellectual and academic freedom. Rather, it reflects the Xi-generated crisis in China’s ability to think about, debate and formulate ideas free of Communist Party manipulation, ideas that rightfully could and should benefit Chinese society, the nation and the world as a whole. [Source]

Among several translations of Xu’s own writing in the China Heritage archive is a March 2018 essay evaluating the consequences of this crisis, and of the style of “moral education and personal cultivation” referred to by Peking University’s Hao Ping above.

[…] I feel compelled to make some observations about a particular kind of student whose numbers have proliferated of late, especially in our most prestigious educational institutions.

[…] Here we can offer some details: what’s striking about campus life these days is that the high-achievers — the ‘Three Good Students’ [measuring up to the metrics and requirements of Party educators who judge them according to their ideological commitment, good study habits and carefully modulated behaviour within the school collective] hardly read a thing. That’s to say, basically they won’t read anything unless it contributes to better scores. And, they are carefully honed to be competitive; they’re all ready to participate in whatever competitions may yield a ‘Cup’ for this or an ‘Award’ for that. They are prepped and rehearsed for that down to a T. They know that all they really need to know is what is required to be known. As for the whys and wherefores of things, curiosity and interest: why bother with all of that stuff? After all, isn’t the goal to be accepted as a graduate scholar without actually having to take any qualifying exams? — Maybe, I guess, the only things that are intrinsically interesting to them are the useful; perhaps, too, only knowledge that can be deployed immediately has any abiding value.

[…] Although China today is beset by problems it is equally confronted by a dearth of true political resolve, evidence of which is the tepid mediocrity we see that is limited to a pursuit of self-interest. The upshot of all of this is that no one wants to take responsibility; there’s a complete lack of selfless commitment. Long gone are the days when a magisterial great like Deng Xiaoping had the daring to transform the nation. It’s glaringly obvious what’s wrong with the education system of our Republic, now we are simply witnessing the ongoing effects of the disease. [Source]

Another translation in the series is Peking University constitutional law professor Zhang Qianfan’s response to Xu’s suspension. In January, a law textbook Zhang had written was reportedly removed from sale. Since the essay’s publication, his WeChat account has also been suspended.

Not too long ago, Professor Xu was officially celebrated as one of China’s ‘Ten Preeminent Younger Legal Minds’. Over the years he has been unwavering in his stance as a liberal thinker and his views have not undergone any change whatsoever. What has changed, however, is the discursive environment within China itself; recent years have seen a conspicuous tightening. Tsinghua University is not punishing him for publishing extreme or over-the-top views, rather he is being disciplined for daring to speak out and state the obvious in a repressive environment in which others do not dare express their views. He is being framed for a ‘Speech Crime’.

[…] In normal circumstances a scholar like Xu Zhangrun would be the pride of Tsinghua, instead he is now being punished. What has given rise to this absurd situation? It’s because there is at Tsinghua an incorrigible self-protecting bureaucratic system under the President and Party Secretary that, rather than finding ways to protect a scholar of conscience, prefers to play it safe by axing him. This is a hazardous and self-defeating act: Tsinghua does not belong to such Party bosses; it belongs to all of its teachers and students.

[…] The power of ideas cannot be denied. Ultimately, to criminalise speech and repress scholars only serves as ‘free advertising’ for their ideas. Don’t you people get it: most people have no idea who the president of Tsinghua is, but everyone now knows that there is a Xu Zhangrun at Tsinghua. In the process, Tsinghua’s leaders have become the object of scorn. Even now I hold out hope that Tsinghua will correct its folly, rescind its interdiction and move to protect its ‘positive assets’; in the process they might even avoid being branded as being guilty of this ‘historical blemish’ on their record of stewardship. [Source]

Zhang subsequently discussed China’s “conspicuous tightening” under Xi in an interview with the Hong Kong-based Initium Media, which Barmé translated in the same post. Besides the closing of space for free expression on the mainland, the interview covers the “rather challenging relationship” between national and Party constitutions, and the deepening erosion of Hong Kong’s autonomy. From Zhang’s responses:

[… “Freedom of speech, a basic element in a social contract,”] demands that, when someone’s freedom of speech is repressed, I ought to speak out on their behalf. But, if too few people are willing to speak out as well — in other words, the majority of people just a ‘free-ride’ by letting others speak up while they keep their heads down — the upshot is that nothing will change. Meanwhile, if the few who do speak out say too much they will end up being repressed. As a result, over time there will be fewer and fewer people who are willing to speak out, and everyone will be trapped in a state of repression.

[…] In recent years, as the space for public expression has been further reduced — Leftists, in particular, [that is, Neo Maoists, not the tenured Marxists at state institutions like Tsinghua University] have been restricted in various ways — both left and right have suffered a similar plight and at least their relationship has not deteriorated even further. Some on the left even seem to have come to realise the importance of the freedom of expression. As things continue to unfold it may even be possible that the two groups will come to some kind of consensus understanding regarding the value of free expression. The indiscriminate repression of public expression may well contribute, to a certain extent, to an evolving social consensus [on this subject]. [Source]

CDT translated another interview with Zhang on academic freedom in February.

Illustrating tightening restrictions beyond the academic sphere in another post, Barmé highlighted recent censorship of Nanjing singer Li Zhi’s music and social media following reports of his official censure for “improper conduct.” The post includes translated lyrics from a subsequent tribute to Li by singer Liu Jianshu, who attributes the actions against him to fear on the part of the authorities:

They say your tambourine was too loud
It stirred the stupefied from their dreams
Or was your beer just too cold
Too much for the heedless to cope with
Those with only stomachs for eating
They say that your questions were too foolish
Your answers did not measure up
And, so this spring

Again they are scared [Source]

The song goes on to describe the objects of this fear, including “those who don’t believe/For they dare to say: I DO NOT BELIEVE,” and “challengers on their doorstep/One more, now a total of one thousand and two”—two references to Bei Dao’s 1976 poem “The Answer,” written during that April’s demonstrations in Tiananmen Square and adopted by protesters there 13 years later; “those without enemies,” a reference to Nobel laureate Liu Xiaobo’s “final statement,” written on the day of his trial in 2010; “lawyers too devoted to the law“; “journalists, for they record the facts“; “those with umbrellas/For they disclose a downpour is on the way,” referring to the 2014 Umbrella Movement protests in Hong Kong; and “their tanks being immobilised/Because just one screw has gone awry,” an allusion both to the 1989 June 4 crackdown and a famous quotation from model Communist Lei Feng.

The post also cites artist Ai Weiwei’s comments on those who respond to speech restrictions with compliance. “The act of kowtowing to power in order to receive small pleasures may seem minor,” he says, “but without it, the brutal assault of the censorship system would not be possible.” One focus of the ongoing China Heritage series on Xu Zhangrun is the search for alternative responses. One possible model comes from the historian Chen Yinque, who wrote the epitaph to Wang Guowei inscribed on the stele at Tsinghua. In 1953, Chen was offered a senior position at the Academia Sinica in Beijing. Barmé translates the letter with which he declined:

It remains my belief that the most important qualities for a scholar to possess are intellectual freedom and an independent spirit. That’s why I said in my Encomium:

In the pursuit of learning a True Scholar breaks the shackles of mundane values, for only thereby can he pursue the Truth.

[…] The principles I articulated in that Epitaph are ones to which I adhere steadfastly to this day.

[…] I absolutely do not oppose the present political regime. However, I read Das Kapital in Switzerland during the Third Year of Xuantong [1911-1912, at the time of the collapse of the Qing dynasty and the founding of the Republic of China] and I concluded that if one accepted the Marxist-Leninist worldview it would not be possible to pursue scholastic research. […]

That is why I must articulate an initial condition [related to the invitation from Beijing]:

The History of the Middle Ages Research Institute must be allowed to be free of Marxism-Leninism and not be required to undertake political study [that is the imposed and regular study of Party dogma and policy].

What I mean by this is that no shackles are to be imposed upon us; you simply can’t start out with Marxism-Leninism and expect people to pursue real scholarship. […]

[…] Anyway, the Epitaph I composed is well known, nothing can bury it now. [Source]

Some continue to find some relative freedom outside the capital and official institutions. One product of the recent travels referred to in Ian Johnson’s post above is an essay in the May 9 issue of NYRB, describing three people who have found “intellectual refuge” in Xi’an. Former university professor Chen Hongguo left academia to found “what has become China’s liveliest public forum. An arts and culture space” called “Zhiwuzhi,” or “I know I know nothing.” Also featured are freelance journalist Jiang Xue and citizen journalist Zhang Shihe, also known by the pen name Laohu Miao, or “Tiger Temple.”

I wondered how Chen managed to keep Zhiwuzhi open despite the crackdown on so many independent bookstores and venues across China. He said that it could be closed any day, but added, “I’m not a revolutionary. If you’re too much of an activist you won’t achieve anything. You want to be an activist? Then great, be an activist. But then you’re closed tomorrow.”

Instead, he wants to improve people’s analytical abilities. Only this way, he said, can society really change: “China has a saying that it takes ten years to grow a tree, but a hundred to cultivate a people. Real social transformation takes time. A scholar wrote four characters to describe our work: jing shen chong jian, which means ‘spiritual reconstruction.’”

[…] Xi’an now feels more vibrant than Beijing. It has what is reputed to be the highest concentration of universities and institutes after Beijing and Shanghai, while its distance from the capital and its traditions seem to give it a small bit of shelter from Xi’s crackdown on dissent—for how long is uncertain.

I asked Zhang if this explanation made sense. He laughed. “No! The reason why we can do anything here is it’s a stupid city. The officials don’t get what the [central] government is trying to do. And the police are stupid. If the police here were to train in Beijing they’d come back way fiercer!” [Source]

NYRB published a longer interview with Zhang in January, followed by another with Jiang the following month. CDT has translated two of Jiang’s articles: a 2015 profile of Meng Qun, wife of then-detained rights lawyer Pu Zhiqiang, and a 2017 reflection on the tightening political and security environment under Xi Jinping.

This week, Barmé noted that although “formally deprived of his rights to write or speak, let alone to engage in research work, to teach, or to publish […] Professor Xu was still granted the right to read. Not only does he record what he is reading, he also recommends works that offer a measure of solace, both to himself and to his friends.” One recent recommendation was Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s 1974 essay “Live Not By Lies,” which demonstrates another alternative to acquiescence:

[… T]he simplest and most accessible key to our self-neglected liberation lies right here: Personal non-participation in lies. Though lies conceal everything, though lies embrace everything, but not with any help from me.

This opens a breach in the imaginary encirclement caused by our inaction. It is the easiest thing to do for us, but the most devastating for the lies. Because when people renounce lies it simply cuts short their existence. Like an infection, they can exist only in a living organism.

We do not exhort ourselves. We have not sufficiently matured to march into the squares and shout the truth our loud or to express aloud what we think. It’s not necessary. It’s dangerous. But let us refuse to say that which we do not think.

This is our path, the easiest and most accessible one, which takes into account out inherent cowardice, already well rooted. And it is much easier—it’s dangerous even to say this—than the sort of civil disobedience which Gandhi advocated.

Our path is to walk away from the gangrenous boundary. If we did not paste together the dead bones and scales of ideology, if we did not sew together the rotting rags, we would be astonished how quickly the lies would be rendered helpless and subside.

That which should be naked would then really appear naked before the whole world.

So in our timidity, let each of us make a choice: Whether consciously, to remain a servant of falsehood—of course, it is not out of inclination, but to feed one’s family, that one raises his children in the spirit of lies—or to shrug off the lies and become an honest man worthy of respect both by one’s children and contemporaries. [Source]

In light of the tightening environment within China, self-censorship by Western academic publishers, and heightened scrutiny of academic ties, scholars and institutions elsewhere are also being prompted to examine their engagements with China. Reposting Human Rights Watch’s recently proposed twelve-point code of conduct to counter Chinese government efforts to undermine academic freedom overseas last month, Barmé wrote in his introduction:

Students of China, young and old alike, who have enjoyed and benefitted from periods of relative academic and intellectual freedom in the People’s Republic since 1976, those who have built careers, nurtured families and indulged in lives buoyed by the ebullience of China’s intellectual and cultural world, should now pause to reflect on the fate of learning and creativity in the People’s Republic today.

If you work in an academic institution outside the People’s Republic, the simple ‘Twelve-step Program’ devised by Human Rights Watch and offered below is a practicable guide to how you and your institution can meaningfully, and, yes, still fruitfully, engage with the Chinese world, but in a consciously principled fashion. It will also prove to be useful for institutions and individual academics and students in navigating a relationship with Official China during what may come to be known historically as ‘The Dark Ages of Xi Jinping’. [Source]

In the latest post at China Heritage, Yan Huai, one of the organizers of the petition for Xu delivered to Tsinghua alongside the Wang Guowei stele visit, presents his own account of the occasion. Although scathing about the university administration’s earlier actions, Yan offers some praise for their handling of the situation on the day, and expresses hope that it might serve as a model for future engagements. Xu’s supporters had previously urged the university to “aim your rifle one inch higher“—to give the appearance of carrying out orders from above, while softening their effect on those below.

Thirty years ago it was, like this time around, spring verging on summer. Like now there had been a conflict between the authorities and the masses. On both sides back then the moderates had found themselves sidelined while hard-liners took the lead, each move that either side made was worse than the last. Finally, they ended up in same place; the result was a horrifying tragedy.

Thirty long years: I am not foolhardy enough to think that things might be reassessed and justice prevail this year, but I do earnestly wish that people might have the good sense to mull over that history and learn its lessons so that they can in full, or at least in part, avoid repeating those mistakes.

[…] To my mind, bad laws are laws nonetheless and I believe that popular agitation and political movements should take place within the parameters allowed by the existing legal system. It is, however, even more incumbent upon the authorities to deploy the law on the basis of what is actually legally permissible and they should do so in a civil manner. During the incident described herein the police had no right to detain or confine Ms. Gao, nor did they have any right to take down our petitions. We should commend them for being able to rectify their errors of judgement in a timely fashion. However, I remain appalled by the outrageous treatment of my online friend Qiu Zhanxuan, head of the Marxist Society of Peking University [Qiu was ‘disappeared’ on 28 April [See more from CDT.]].

Prior to the university commemoration the heads of Tsinghua University refused to take receipt of my letter, demonstrating thereby their arrogance and lack of basic courtesy. On the eve of the commemoration they ‘Built High a Wall to Barricade Wang [Guowei]’ an act that was nothing less than an insult to the [2019 commemorative slogan celebrating] a ‘Confident Tsinghua That is More Open Than Ever’. Their gormless moves merely served to exacerbate the situation, so much so that our alumni commemoration was forced by circumstance to escalate into an act of public resistance. However, at the moment when the university was celebrating its founding the administration had the good sense not to treat members of the alumni as ‘fodder for stability maintenance’ [that is, they didn’t repress us]. We, for our part, were measured in our behaviour and we appreciated the good will of the university authorities. Such positive reinforcement on both sides led to the incident achieving a satisfactory conclusion. As a case study this incident should form part of Tsinghua history; it also offers those in more senior positions of power a way to think about and apply these lessons in resolving clashes between the authorities and the people in a rational and civilised manner. [Source]


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