In some places of the world, writing anything negative about your country’s government can land you in deep trouble. One of those places is China, and one of the people in deep trouble there is Xu Zhangrun, a former professor of law at Tsinghua University.
Back in 2018, Xu published an essay—“Imminent Fears, Immediate Hopes” (English translation)—that was critical of Communist Party General Secretary Xi Jinping. Xu was charged with “speech crimes,” suspended from his job, placed under investigation, banned from writing or publishing, and prohibited from leaving the country, even for trips authorized and funded by the university.
In February 2020, Xu published another essay—“Viral Alarm: When Fury Overcomes Fear” (English translation)—this one condemning the Chinese government’s response to the coronavirus outbreak. Since then, Xu’s friends have not been able to contact him, his WeChat account has been suspended, and his name has been eliminated from Weibo. He is presumed to be under house arrest.
In the recent essay, Xu does not moderate his feelings about the status quo in China: “The coronavirus epidemic has revealed the rotten core of Chinese governance. . . . The political life of the nation is in a state of collapse and the ethical core of the system has been rendered hollow.” He was completely aware of the consequences that would ensue: “I can now all too easily predict that I will be subjected to new punishments; indeed, this may well even be the last piece I write.”
Xu is deeply mindful of issues in China beyond the mishandling of the outbreak: “We are even seeing examples of official propaganda in which children are encouraged to report on their parents, in betrayal of normal human relations. . . . University lecturers have been repeatedly punished for what they say; they now live in trepidation, ever fearful that party ideological watchdogs or student spies will report them. . . . People are being scared into silence.”
Among Xu's “radical” beliefs: The ban on independent media and publishing should be lifted. Secret police surveillance of the Internet should be stopped. Citizens should have the right to assemble, associate, demonstrate, and vote in open elections. And an independent body should investigate the origins of the coronavirus epidemic, trace the cover-up, and determine who was responsible.
Xu writes that the epidemic is only the latest symptom of the evil autocracy that is the current Chinese regime. He knows that he is putting his life in danger with his writings, but he also knows that other lives are as important as his own.
“In the end,” he writes, “it is about freedom.” He wants his fellow Chinese citizens to “rage against this injustice; let your lives burn with a flame of decency; break through the stultifying darkness and welcome the dawn.”