Translation: Losing One’s Freedom for Freedom’s Sake—Xu Zhiyong’s Further Response to “Subversion of State Power” Charges

On April 10, civil rights lawyers Xu Zhiyong and Ding Jiaxi were sentenced to 14 and 12 years in prison, respectively, on charges of “subversion of state power” after closed door trials in Linshu County, Shandong. The charges stemmed from a private gathering they hosted in Xiamen in 2019 to discuss the future of China’s civil rights movement. Both men were held in custody for over three years, including a period spent in “residential surveillance at a designated location,” detention at a secret location without access to lawyers or family members, during which time they were allegedly tortured. The lengthy sentences highlighted the hard-line position the Party-state has taken against peaceful activism in the Xi Jinping era.

Statements from both Xu and Ding were published in English by China Change on the eve of their sentencing. The text of a different statement previously composed by Xu Zhiyong was later provided to CDT by fellow rights lawyer Teng Biao. The following is a full translation of Xu’s earlier response to the charges and his vision for a democratic and “beautiful” China, with links added by the editors for context:

  1. The Citizens’ Movement

You accuse me of subverting state power. Here are my so-called “criminal” transgressions: advocating for the Citizens’ Movement, writing “A Beautiful China,” participating in the non-violent exchange of ideas, and meeting with other citizens offline. I have no intention of defending myself, because it is not your verdict, but rather the will of the Lord in Heaven, that will determine when we—when China—will be free. The dawn approaches. For the betterment of that future beautiful China, it is necessary for me to explain once again the Citizens’ Movement.

The Citizens’ Movement advocates for true citizenship—i.e., true recognition of people’s citizenship, rights, and responsibilities. It advocates for the rational progress of our country and society. It advocates for the ultimate realization of a beautiful China of democracy, rule of law, freedom, justice, and love. True recognition of citizenship implies that we are not lowly supplicants, nor voiceless peons caught up in some unending dynastic cycle. Citizens are the masters of the country. Citizens decide which party and which individuals are in power via regular, democratic elections. True recognition of citizenship means recognition of our rights to elections, speech, assembly, protest, and demonstration as written in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the Chinese constitution. Our freedom of speech must not be arbitrarily curtailed by false pretexts, such as labeling certain speech too sensitive or harmful. Citizens must not be deprived of their right to vote by forms of electoral manipulation such as the establishment of indirect elections, the selection of hand-picked candidates, or the suppression of political opposition. As citizens, we must take our responsibilities seriously. China is a country of its people—all its people. It is not the China of any particular clan or political party. As citizens, we must pursue democracy, defend freedom, and uphold fairness and justice.

[To those in power, I call on you to] take seriously the ideals that you hang on the walls—your so-called “core values” of democracy and freedom. Noble people throughout this country have held high the banner of democracy and freedom for over a century. Recognize this, and take it seriously. It’s that simple. Does merely asking for this amount to subversion of your state power?

The Citizens’ Movement advocates for modern, civilized public life. We believe that politics, rather than being about “might makes right” or the unscrupulous grasping for power, should be a positive undertaking for the benefit of the general public. Our logo features a blue background from China’s Republican Era and Mr. Sun Yat-sen’s calligraphy of the word “citizen.” In order to promote the concept of citizenship, the logo has been reproduced on badges, t-shirts, umbrellas, water bottles, and other items. We actively participate in public affairs, oppose detention and deportation, participate in National People’s Congress elections, express opinions on major public events, and submit constructive criticism. We are very enthusiastic about undertakings to benefit the public welfare, such as aiding earthquake victims, helping primary school students in Tibetan areas, and preventing the forced relocation of the Beijing Zoo. We are public interest lawyers, independent candidates for the National People’s Congress, members of local chambers of commerce, environmental protection advocates, and opinion leaders. We are Chinese citizens who pursue freedom and love democracy. You, too, can be a citizen. Let us be citizens together, serving society, cultivating civil society, and fostering connections to create a nationwide community of citizens.

The goal of the Citizens’ Movement is a freer, fairer, more loving and beautiful China. Human beings are born free. Ensuring this freedom is the perennial purpose of a country or society. Freedom means that people may do as they please, insofar as they do not encroach on the freedom of others. When our actions do affect others, a balance must be sought. There should be no restrictions on ideology or speech, and power and responsibility should be commensurate. Justice and fairness form the logical boundary of our freedoms. In a just and fair world, there are restrictions on the powerful and protections for the vulnerable, and each individual contributes to the best of their ability, allowing everyone to reach their full potential.

Love is the most beautiful emotion in this world. Love yourself. Devote yourself to personal development. Perfect your soul. Love your family and friends. Love life and be grateful for it. Have love for those you do not know. Smile warmly at strangers. Love your enemies. Sympathize with those whose souls are bound by hatred and hostility. Love all living things, the soul of all life, the infinite and eternal earth. Our core values are freedom, justice, and love. This is the banner of our era and the new spirit of the Chinese nation.

Being a true citizen is not just about strategy, but about faith. Totalitarian systems lack faith in themselves, thus they seek to cloak themselves in modern concepts such as democracy and freedom, rather like a scoundrel camouflages himself in monks’ robes. If the populace takes notice of this, they can at least force these “false priests” to adhere to some standards of behavior. Being a citizen, on the other hand, is more about faith. It is a righteous path toward a world community that belongs to all. What I want most in this life is to become a true citizen able to enjoy freedom of speech, the right to vote in fair elections, and other universal rights. When that day comes, my country will have certainly changed, too.

The Citizens’ Movement is not the name of an organization. Citizens’ groups are not yet considered formal organizations in China. One day, when China needs it, the citizenry will organize—not into a mob-style hierarchical, personality-driven organization, but into a modern, civilized political organization based on the principles of individual freedom and democracy. It will be called the Citizens’ Union.

  1. A Beautiful China

My first draft of “A Beautiful China” was written in 1993. It was originally titled “A Free China.” The final draft was completed with no pen and no paper in a detention center in October 2020. The work, made up of 24 essays, is divided into three sections. The first section contains ten essays about the civil rights movement, including “The Twentieth Century,” “One Life for One Dream,” “In the Name of the Citizenry,” and others. The second section contains nine essays about the Citizens’ Movement, including “China’s Path,” “The New Citizens’ Movement,” “On Non-violence,” and more. The third section contains five essays about the future of China, including “A Constitutional China,” “Good Governance,” “A Beautiful China,” “The Rebirth of a Civilization,” and “My Faith.”

In the spring of 2003, we submitted a citizens’ proposal to the National People’s Congress Standing Committee, requesting a constitutional review of the custody and repatriation system. In the signature section of the proposal, the title “Citizen” was added in front of my name. With everyone joining forces, the issue created a stir amongst the public and the government, and the practice of custody and repatriation was soon abolished. Since then, a group of legal professionals has been in the public eye, utilizing the law as a weapon to defend Chinese citizens’ civil rights, and to promote the democratic process and the rule of law. In academic and professional circles, this movement came to be known as the “citizens’ rights movement.”

Over the past decade, we have fought for innocent people sentenced to death, for the infant victims of contaminated baby formula, and for those forced to work as slaves in illegal brickyards. We have monitored black jails, rescued illegally detained petitioners, and fought for the rights of tens of millions of left-behind children to attend school and take the college entrance exam in cities where their parents live and work. We have run for seats in the National People’s Congress, advocated for electoral system reform, and provided numerous recommendations to the National People’s Congress, including the abolition of reeducation-through-labor camps and the reform of family planning policy. We once looked forward to the gradual advancement of grass-roots democracy, and the gradual improvement of the rule of law. We believed China would eventually, through gradual improvement, realize a democratic, modern society under the rule of law.

In a society in which citizens have long been treated as “subjects,” we shine our weak light in order to awaken the people, and urge them to act as citizens and change China together. In May 2012, we launched the New Citizens’ Movement, which was later renamed the Citizens’ Movement.

Authoritarianism will perish; democracy is inevitable. It is my hope that China will forge its own unique path on the way to a constitutional system. I hope that the reform of the old economic and political system and the rise of a true market economy and community of citizens will come at minimal cost to the common people. Regardless of whether the government is able to complete this transition in an orderly fashion, or whether the dictatorship suddenly collapses, it is our hope China will not fall into turmoil, but rather will embark upon a more beautiful future. This is the path for China to take. This is the original aspiration of the Citizens’ Movement.

When Soviet Russia underwent its political transformation, its economy and society were unprepared. There was turmoil and disorder, and authoritarianism resurfaced. China is different. We’ve had a market economy for 40 years and there is a nascent civil society. China has been preparing for this for 40 years. We will continue to work hard, outside of the old political system, to foster a strong, rational, modern civilization. The Chinese revolution will not follow the old path of the Soviet Union, because our citizens here won’t allow it.

We know that China will have a beautiful future—a China that is democratic, free, just, and full of love. It will be a China reborn, and a China admired all over the world.

  1. The Rebirth of a Civilization

Our mission as sons and daughters of China is not national rejuvenation—it is the rebirth of our civilization. “National rejuvenation” implies bringing back a previous era of prosperity. But what era? One might describe the Western Han Dynasty as strong and prosperous. But the Roman Empire at the time proved much more militarily, technologically, and culturally influential on later generations. The Tang Dynasty was very prosperous culturally, but the Islamic Empire rose at the same time, with the “Arabian Nights” and Arabic numerals spreading far and wide. The Qin Dynasty was short-lived. The Song Dynasty’s army was weak. I can scarcely bear to recollect the class system of the Yuan Dynasty. And science and culture declined steadily throughout the Ming and Qing.

China has been enshrouded by the Qin system for more than 2,000 years. Although revival was achieved during the Tang and Song, because of the roots of our system, China’s backwardness today is an inevitability. The Qin system was barbaric and domineering. Throughout the history of these dynastic cycles, the world belonged to the powerful. Might made right. The tree of Chinese civilization remained stunted, withered, unable to grow. Our modern ancestors introduced science, and once endeavored to introduce democracy, but it was Communism that was introduced instead. In the end, the evil fire of Marxist-Leninist fetishism ravaged the country, resulting in the current spiritual wilderness.

In China, those in power struggle to combat western democracy and freedom with western Communist totalitarianism. We combat western Christian civilization with the fetishization of western Marxism-Leninism. We combat the best of the west with the dregs of the west. As such, our failure is guaranteed. True confidence in ourselves as a nation cannot be established by disinterring our ancestors and replacing them with Marxism-Leninism. It cannot be found in the oracle bones or the bamboo-slip scrolls of our ancestral graveyards, nor can it be attained by whitewashing our problems, or by trumpeting a fake era of prosperity. True self-confidence shall be rooted in the beliefs and culture of our ancestors, but based on contemporary democracy and freedom. Self-confidence will spring from the passion and vitality of 1.4 billion people, by developing the world’s most advanced technology, most prosperous economy, and most splendid culture. This will be a rebirth of our civilization, a beautiful China.

I have seen the glory of China’s past. The golden masks recently excavated at the Sanxingdui archaeological site remind us of our nation’s long history of religiosity. Just like all major civilizations of the past, religious worship played an important role in ancient China. Shang Tang, founder of the Shang Dynasty, was famously benevolent. As the popular story goes, Shang Tang left three sides of his net open, so that all animals would have ample opportunity to escape. At the Battle of Mingtiao, he declared: “The Xia have committed many crimes. As a god-fearing man, I do not dare but punish them, as the heavens have decreed.” Stories such as these evince a China with a soul, with faith.

Japanese civilization attained rebirth, integrating modern science and democracy. India is in the process of rebirth. Chinese civilization, too, shall be reborn. We are left in this spiritual wilderness, where a new civilization is yet to flourish. We must gain a higher understanding of nature, of ourselves, and of God. Once we do, we will gain the wisdom needed to resolve inter-civilization conflict and advance toward a new era of humanity, with new philosophies, new religions, new technologies, and new cultures.

The bedrock to China’s rebirth lies in ancient times. Ancient China was a place that believed in a Lord in Heaven. It was a bountiful spiritual realm. It was a China in full bloom. The boundless power of China’s rebirth blossoms forth into today’s world, as well. If all our people were freed from their oppression and allowed to create freely, China would surely regain its glory.

Gazing up at the eternal moonlight through my iron window, I prayed with my ancestors to the Lord in Heaven. You created the universe, galaxies, life, and humanity. You inspired our wisdom, science, and all major religions. We are like your children, lost for 3,000 years, lonely, suffering in a spiritual wilderness. But now, we are coming home. You are watching this generation of your children taking up the challenge and striving to end this long autocratic twilight. They will usher in the glorious rebirth of eastern civilization, with freedom, justice, and love. It will be a China with a soul, a China with faith.

  1. Dawn Approaches

The Qing Dynasty was overthrown one century ago, and the Republic of China was established. But the specter of autocracy refused to leave history’s stage. After decades of internal and external troubles, the Republic of China fell, and autocracy returned.

Autocracy was revived, this time in the name of communism. Shouts of “Wansui!” rang out through the land. China’s immature democracy, rule of law, and market economy were gone with the wind. The people of China had just stood up, only to be knocked to their knees once again, against the run of history. The nation lacked confidence in itself. Lies swirled throughout society. These lies were maintained through violence and terror, under the guise of democracy and freedom. The people were massively oppressed during the new government’s early days. The Anti-Rightist Movement broke the backbone of academia. During the Great Leap Forward, tens of millions starved to death. The Cultural Revolution was madness. They destroyed Emperor Yan’s Mausoleum, and dug up the grave of Confucius and many other of our ancestors. There have been many times of trouble throughout China’s history. The Mongolians were here, so were the Manchus, the Japanese, and other foreign occupiers. Yet even they at least respected Confucius and our ancestors. Only the specter of Soviet-Russian communism was able to decimate our cultural heritage to such an unprecedented degree. Their crimes are measureless.

Such extremes are untenable. The totalitarian madness gradually dissipated. The people have enjoyed a taste of freedom, a breath of fresh air, and over three decades  of progress and prosperity. Yet the spirit of totalitarianism is hard to drive away. Once moribund, it has managed to roar back to life. Looking at China today, here are the “Four Comprehensives” I see:

Comprehensive economic crisis. Totalitarian systems may be able to promote economic development in the short term, but the market is inevitably distorted. The system exhausts the labor force, suppresses society, and eventually constitutes an obstacle to economic development. China currently suffers from high oil prices, high housing prices, and high taxes. The national economy and people’s livelihoods are being stifled by blood-sucking monopolies. Everyday people are heavily indebted and lack any spending power. As the saying goes, if the people are poor, so is the country. The powerful steal, and then store their wealth abroad like swarms of rats. They recklessly invest vast sums of money, emptying the national treasury. The expansion of the stability maintenance system saps our national strength. The rest of the world’s economy is booming post-pandemic, yet China’s industries wither, and its people are in dire straits. In response to this economic crisis, the powerful have redoubled their efforts to leech our lifeblood and squander money, imbibing poison to quench their thirst.

Comprehensive political regression. In the 1980s, there was discussion about separating the Party and the government. But to this day, the Party still controls everything—the economy, private enterprise, primary and secondary schools, soccer, churches and temples, Yin and Yang and everything under the sun. They burn the crosses atop churches. Buddhist monks are lined up for the raising of the national flag each day. They call this a “wonder of prosperity.” Village-level democracy has regressed over the past 40 years. Hong Kong’s century-long freedom and rule of law have been destroyed. Within the Party, they’ve invented a crime called “wanton talk.” Practically no one dares to openly express their opinions. Heedless of international condemnation, they brazenly tamper with the constitution, and vainly scheme for life appointments to positions whose responsibilities they neglect. As far as China’s sons and daughters are concerned, I can’t think of anything more intolerable.

Comprehensive cultural dilapidation. Even with a population of 1.4 billion, China’s cultural influence lags far behind that of Japan or South Korea. Confucius Institutes have run into obstacles the world over. And our once grand holiday, Spring Festival, has become soulless, insipid and dull. Layer upon layer of censorship have left the internet in a state of despair. Film, television, literature, and art are all thematically homogenous. Since the Cultural Revolution, the Chinese people have been wandering a spiritual desert. How could we possibly attain national revival under the current status quo—with an evil spirit from the west digging up the graves of our ancestors?

Comprehensive diplomatic failure. The 2022 Beijing Olympics were met with the largest-scale boycotts against any Olympic Games in the post-World War II era. The Chinese people have never before encountered such widespread discrimination. Massive investments in the Belt and Road Initiative have yet to produce any return. We curry favor with tsars, view democracy as our enemy, and join forces with autocratic pariahs—how could our dignified country have fallen so low?

Tens of millions of our people live below the international poverty line. Yet they tell us we are completely well-off. Our government’s legislative body amounts to nothing more than a rubber stamp, and yet they claim to be the highest authority in the land. China is clearly a one-party dictatorship, yet they claim to be democratic at every level of government. It is obvious the emperor has no clothes, yet they claim he wears the most beautiful attire in the world.

The people’s energy is being squandered. Confusion and worry abound. The natural world is in disarray. We sustained a once-in-a-century pandemic, flooding throughout the central plains, mountains trembled, and thunder roared. The Lord in Heaven is warning us, yet still it is insufficient to awaken our emperor from his heedless slumber. Two years ago, I called on Xi Jinping to step down. There is yet to be a response. The time has come. The end of your reign is at hand. Heaven desires your downfall. Who could contain its fury?

  1. We, the Citizens

Citizens, dawn is nigh. The long night of dictatorship has spanned 3,000 years. The prelude to change began in 1840, and the last 70 years were the hour before dawn, before the long night finally comes to an end. Communist totalitarianism is a dead end. The tides of history cannot be held back for long. Autocracy will fall. China will be reborn. It is the revolution of a century, but also the greatest revolution in the last 3,000 years. This is the final battle—between freedom and slavery, democracy and tyranny, light and darkness.

We are China’s future. What kind of future we leave for future generations depends on our beliefs and actions today. In this land of thousand-year autocracy, of poisonous pollution, we have lost our national faith. Our national conscience is corrupted, our culture withered. It greatly saddens us. A new civilization needs a cornerstone. We citizens must be that cornerstone. A new civilization needs fertile soil. We citizens are duty-bound.

It has been twenty years since I visited numerous villages in Hubei and Henan ravaged by the AIDS epidemic. That was the summer after I received my Ph.D, when I began my journey along the bumpy road of public welfare work. I’ve been beaten to the ground in front of the National Public Complaints and Proposals Commission. I was beaten and kicked in a youth hostel doubling as a black jail, and likewise beaten in Yinan County. I was illegally detained in many places, arrested on charges of tax evasion, and imprisoned as a thief. As a prisoner, I was transferred to Tianhe Prison, then Liulin Prison, and then to Kenhua Prison. Blessed be those who sacrifice for the public good. I am reminded of Paul’s letter [to Timothy]: “I have fought the good fight and finished my course. I have kept the faith. What age is this, in which I still have opportunity to share the glory of the Lord?”

I’ve never felt hopeless. There is a starry sky above the ruins; above the starry sky is God’s love. I never complain about what people have done. The current predawn silence persists only because our singing is not yet loud enough. My passion burns for freedom. I will fight for the public good in every corner of this society. I will show mercy to all living beings because of my love.

I deeply love this world. I love every shy flower, every innocent springtime bud. I deeply love freedom. But in order to fight for the freedom of others, the freedom of China, I have been deprived of my own freedom, time and time again.

I was born on the old course of the Yellow River, in the hinterlands of the Central Plains. Three thousand years ago, this place was called China. Against long odds, this place had a 20th century name: Minquan [Civil Rights]. I deeply love this republic. I love the flickering light of hope for our nation. I am a latecomer to this place of such long history, but I have spent my entire life fighting for civil rights. I know that the Great Era has begun. I hear the footsteps of history marching nearer. I hear them say: “Yea, walk through this final valley of the shadow of death.” Because of faith, I take up this cross. Because of faith, I trudge through years of darkness. Because of faith, I embrace with my life the rising sun that is the rebirth of Eastern civilization.

It has been ten years since the Citizens’ Movement began. How many citizens will stand up throughout this great land? This nation has been on its knees for far too long. We have a long way to go. But don’t be pessimistic. Not everyone needs to awaken for democracy and freedom to take hold. All we need is about ten million brave souls—just one percent of the country. That is all we need to change China. Do not assume the night is too dark. The dawn is inevitable. Do not fear the silence. It is defeated with one word of truth. Do not despair over their guns and firepower. Once freedom awakens, the demons will disappear and the guns and armor will return to the people. Our strength arises not from guns, but from human hearts; not from lies, but from truth; not from trickery but from sincerity; not from hatred, but from love.

Remember to speak the truth. The truth is powerful. Even if speaking the truth garners no immediate reaction, the seeds are planted. They will germinate at some point. Speaking the truth may be banned. It may get you detained. But this just proves its value. Speak the truth bravely, and wisely. Say “I am a citizen,” say “beautiful China.” Say “Arise ye who will not be slaves.” Speak the truth on the internet, on t-shirts, on the bus and on the subway, all throughout this great land. Speak the truth anywhere Chinese people are.

Remember fasting days. Fast on June 4th each year. Express it openly online. Fasting is an especially irrepressible form of commemoration. It can persist even if freedom is lost. Fasting weakens the body yet strengthens the spirit. Through this fasting, we commemorate the past and aspire to a more open future. We are building a new national spirit with sincerity and humility.

Remember Citizens’ Day. Every Sunday is Citizens’ Day. Citizens in every region can determine their own Citizens’ Day. On this day, citizens gather and concern themselves with issues the country faces, exchange ideas, and serve society. On this day, citizens wear badges, display the Citizens’ Movement logo, and spread the concept of the movement.

Remember “A Beautiful China.” This is the vision we are fighting for. This is China’s future and a path forward. Once ten million citizens have read it, democracy will come to this miraculous land.

Remember to love. Courage is most crucial just before dawn. Cherish your brave fellow citizens. Do not maliciously attack others on the internet. Do not speak without love. Criticize others with kindness in your heart. Seek to understand one another with passion and gentleness. Pioneers and latecomers should encourage each other. Different organizations and religious groups should tolerate one another. People of different walks of life should support one another. Love this land and all the vicissitudes of its long-standing civilization. Love its hard-working people. It is our common destiny to end the long night of autocracy and usher in the glorious rebirth of Eastern civilization. Do not be blinded by hatred. Only with love in our hearts will we have the strength to bravely move forward.

When that day comes, when people take to the streets, the citizens shall be the ones leading the way. We already have a strong community of citizens. We know how to resolve ethnic tensions and historical grievances. We know how to navigate out of economic crises. We know how to give people confidence and hope. We know how to heal the wounds of history. Truth and justice are on our side. We know the future of China—it is scientific constitutionalism, the rebirth of our civilization, and a beautiful China. We are ready.

You claim we are subverting your regime. Spare me your flattery. It won’t be us—it will be the entire people who overthrow you. If you insist on attributing such glory to me, very well: I calmly accept it, and promptly direct it back to the motherland and its people, to history, and finally, to the Lord in Heaven. For it is he who has arranged this all.

Citizen Xu Zhiyong, April 2022 [Chinese]

Translation by Little Bluegill.



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