Thursday, January 31, 2008

Hu Jia is Charged

According to internet sources, activist Hu Jia has been formally charged for the crime of "inciting subversion of state power" (煽动颠覆国家政权罪).

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Walking Together in Shanghai

A few years ago, when the internet fad "flash mob" was introduced in China, It went beyond the usual hippy young crowd who practice it just for the fun of it. Rather, ordinary people, who may not even internet-savvy, found very practical purposes, such as gather a large crowd at a certain department store to buy the same appliance. With the crowd, it's easy to negotiate a on-the-spot volume discount for everyone's benefit.

Or a on-the-fly assembly to express an opinion in public, anonymously.

Large assembly or protests are strictly monitored and practically forbidden in China, although it remains as a right in the Constitution. It's extremely risky for anyone to step up and organize such activities, even with government's approval. Therefore, a "flash mob" gathering, with no trace of its organizers or initial agitators, fits the bill perfectly.

Long before the internet, a very low-tech version of "flash mob" has already been in practice, such as the New Year's Day protest in 1987. In more recent years, with the advance of cell phones and the popularity of text-messaging, it's much easier to reach a larger group of people on an upcoming gathering.

Such flash mob style protests have been practiced before. In 2004, thousands of people gathered on the streets of Shanghai, expressing anti-Japan sentiments. In June last year, a large scale demonstration broke out in Xiamen, protesting the building of a chemical factory in residential area.

A few days ago, another such protest broke out in Shanghai, humorously referred as "Taking a Walk Together", as there is no law against walking together. The purpose was to protest the building of a new maglev train line. The crowd is reported to be huge. They even chanted slogans and sang the national anthem together when confronted by police. Police detained, and soon released, a few people but was generally powerless with the crowd, who seem to be dispersing and gathering at random.

What is more remarkable, however, is that this time the event was reported in local media. Today, the main newspaper in the city, the Liberation Daily (解放日报), published an editorial addressing the issue. In a typical condescending tone, it lectured that while the government needs to listen to people's voices, people should use "normal and legal" channels to express them, instead of resorting to "street politics".

It wasn't a harsh editorial. But it has an all-too-familiar title: We Must Make a Clear-Cut Stand Against Street Politics 必须旗帜鲜明地反对街头政治). It echoes the most (in)famous People's Daily editorial, We Must Make a Clear-Cut Stand Against Turmoil, published on April 26, 1989. That editorial ignited the then-fledging student movement into a full-scale confrontation.

We haven't seen such language being used often since then.

Friday, January 11, 2008

One Professor's "Last Lesson" on Tiananmen

Eighteen years after the Tiananmen Massacre, that historical event remains to be one of the biggest taboo in China. Even the official version is not being taught in classrooms. The subject just can not be mentioned.

But this week, at the University of Political Science and Law (政法大学), an Associate Professor by the name of Xiao Han (萧瀚) mentioned it during his "last lesson" to his class. It was supposed to be the last class of the semester and Xiao was unusually emotional. He prepared his lecture notes for a week before delivered it.

Citing the famous novel by Alphonse Daudet, Xiao told the students that although their situation is not as dire as the French in that novel, it is nevertheless an emotional time. He expressed his regret that he had been teaching only the knowledge, but not the value of life. And he went on:

Compared to you, I am already too old: I am almost twice as old as you are. If you were born in 1987, at the beginning of that year, China's college students went on the streets for the first time, asking for political reform with their passion, blood, faith, and youth. There was no results -- or worse than no results. Two years later, in 1989, when you were probably only 3 years old, in that summer, even more students, with even more blood and youth, tried to wake up this sleepy nation. But many of them left their blood in the [Tiananmen] Square. Only one body remains in that Square now. But the blood can not be cleansed. It will last longer than any real tombstone... ... The names of those people had been erased from all files. We don't even know who they are. Some among you probably don't even know that had happened. But for us, for myself who had experienced that time, it was the most important social event of my life. It deeply affects my life.

One more year, this event would have passed for twenty years. Time passed so fast. We didn't even have time to let our tears flow, yet our tears had already run dry. We didn't have time to remember, but our memory had already been lost. But I know, anyone who had experienced that event like me, will forever remember it deep in his heart. And now and then he will take it out and give it a good remembrance. That event represented our youth, the first broken dream of any young people who concerned about the world, the broken heart of a failed first love with this society. It cannot help but to be sculptured in our hearts and bones.
A week after delivering this lecture, Professor Xiao resigned from the school. His resignation was not prompted by his above lecture or for political reason. Rather, he was fed up by an incident in his school in which a professor was involved in a physical fight with a student during a dispute on class attendance. Maybe that was just the last straw for Professor Xiao, who is obviously deeply disappointed with the current status of education in China.

Due to its sensitive subject, the University of Political Science and Law had long been a very conservative school in Beijing. However, in the early days of 1989, it was from this school many students first marched to Tiananmen to commemorate Hu Yaobang's death, led by several young teachers from Beida.

Maybe Professor Xiao Han was one of them as well.

Wednesday, January 9, 2008

Fang Lizhi Reminiscences the Early Years of USTC

This year, 2008, will mark the 50th anniversary of the founding of University of Science and Technology of China (USTC, 科大). In planning for the upcoming commemoration activities, some faculties at the school suggested to invite Professor Fang Lizhi back home to attend. After all, Fang had worked in that school for more than 28 years and served as its Vice President for a few years before he was sacked.

But that of course would never happen. Fang Lizhi is still an "enemy of state" for his alleged involvement in the Tiananmen movement and in exile. It's increasingly unlikely that he would be allowed to be back in China in his lifetime.

In lieu of attending the ceremonies, Fang has just published an essay to reminiscence on the very early years of USTC. It's a touching remembrance of a time that has thankfully become more and more unfamiliar to today's people in China.

USTC was founded in 1958 as a small but ambitious technical college in the western suburban of Beijing. It's mission was to rapidly turn out graduates highly skilled in the most advanced technology so they could serve in the budding defense projects including nuclear bombs, missiles, and satellites (两弹一星).

As a new school, however, it had to accept "cast-offs" from existing universities to establish its faculty. Fang Lizhi estimated that 60% of USTC's founding faculties were "political defects" such as himself. Fang had just been expelled from the Communist Party for his outspokenness during the "Anti-Rightists Movement" and was dispatched from Beida to the new USTC.

Perhaps because such a high ratio of "bad elements", Fang fondly recalls that, life in the early USTC was actually easier for them. Fang was allowed to teach undergraduate classes right away, although he was barely a lecturer at the time. He was also able to conduct his own research, in between performing physical labor as all intellectuals were required to do at the time. However, when his first research paper was accepted by the top physics journal in China, he was told that he could not use his real name. A pseudonym was used: 王允然, which literally means "allowed by the King".

USTC was eventually moved out of Beijing to the remote Anhui Province in early 1970s. Taking advantage of its distance from Beijing, Fang Lizhi and other like-minded young faculties and administrators reformed the school into a basin of free thinking and academic excellence. During the 1980s, when Fang was the Vice President of the school, USTC had gained enough prestige to be regarded on par with the more traditional powerhouses such as Beida and Tsinghua.

Also due to its remote location, USTC was never a hotbed for student movements. But in the Fall of 1986, inspired by Fang's liberal speeches, USTC ignited a wave of large-scale protests that swept the southern part of the country. In January, 1987, Fang Lizhi was expelled from the Communist Party once again and stripped all his positions in USTC. He returned to Beijing and was assigned to be a staff in Beijing Astronomical Observatories.

As Fang noted in his essay, both his arrival and departure of USTC coincided with his being expelled from the Party.

Today, Fang is a Professor of Physics at the University of Arizona. Since his forced departure of USTC, the school had lost much of its fame in China.

Sunday, January 6, 2008

The College Entrance Exam of 1977

The New York Times published an interesting article today commemorating the college entrance exam of 1977 in China. Thirty years ago, the culture revolution had interrupted higher education for a decade. High school graduates were sent down to country side to receive "reeducation" from the peasants, with their lives permanently fixated in hard labor.

That had all changed in 1977, when the new leader Deng Xiaoping re-instituted the National College Entrance Exam. He did that only months after he regained power, as one of the first critical decisions he had ever made. The decision sent shock waves throughout the country and millions of families to drop everything at hand for the preparation of the exams. 5.7 million youth took the exam and only 4.7 percent of them gained admission to any colleges.

The Times article listed a few prominent names in that generation, such as Li Keqiang (李克强), who is now poised to become the next generation to lead the country.

However, the article failed to mention another group of people in that 1977 class. People such as Hu Ping (胡平), Chen Ziming (陈子明), and Wang Juntao (王军涛). They played significant roles in the subsequent Beijing Spring movement and the 1980 local election campaign in Beijing. Later, Chen Ziming and Wang Juntao was deeply involved in the 1989 student movement and was blamed as the "black hands" behind the students.

One of the student leaders of the 1989 movement, Liu Gang (刘刚), also belonged to that class of 1977. He took the exam despite of his young age: he was only a junior in high school at the time. But he earned a score good enough to be admitted into the University of Science and Technology of China.

1989: The Year of Anniversaries

The fact that 1989 became the year of the biggest student demonstrations was not entirely coincidental. It was a conspicuous year for China. Several important anniversaries fell on that year:
This, coupled with some of the (relatively) smaller scale student movements in the previous years, caused a lot of excitement in various campuses. From the beginning of the year, student activists were already busy publishing their own mimeographed magazines calling for actions during the anniversary year. Privately, they gathered and talked endlessly about "doing something big".

Social discontent was also in the rise, mostly due to rampant inflation and corruption. But at this point, such mundane matters was not seriously regarded by the students and intellectuals. At least not yet.

It was Professor Fang Lizhi who made the first big noise of the year. After the student movements in late 1986, Fang Lizhi was one of the intellectuals who had been publicly expelled from the Communist Party and stripped of academic positions. For his physics background, he was assigned a staff position in the Beijing Observatories. For a couple of years, Fang was content in doing research work there and kept a public silence, until now.

Professor Fang was also keenly aware that 1989 was also the 10th anniversary of Wei JingSheng's imprisonment. An electrician and outspoken democratic activist during the Beijing Spring movement a decade earlier, Wei had been sentenced for 15 years since 1979. By 1989, Wei's case had been largely erased from the public memory.

On January 6, 1989, Fang Lizhi surprised everyone by publishing an open letter to Deng Xiaoping, an act that was extremely unusual in China and considered an open protest. The letter was concise and to the point:

Chairman Deng Xiaoping
The Central Military Commission

This year is the 40th anniversary of the People's Republic of China. It is also the 70th anniversary of the May Fourth Movement. There will certainly be a lot of commemorate activities for these anniversaries. However, compared to looking back, far more people would perhaps concern about the present more. They are concerning about new hopes these anniversaries could bring for the future.

For this purpose, I sincerely suggest to you that, at the cusp of these anniversaries, a nationwide amnesty is called for, especially to release Wei Jingsheng and all political prisoners like him.

I think that, however one would judge Wei Jingsheng himself, releasing someone like him who had been in prison for 10 years is consistent to the humanitarian principle. It will enhance the social atmosphere.

Coincidentally, this year is also the 200th anniversary of the great French Revolution. No matter how we see that event, the values symbolized by that revolution, Liberty, Equality, Fraternity, and Human Rights, have become universally respected by the human kind. Therefore, I sincerely appeal to you once again to consider my suggestion, so that we can add on more respect for the future.

Best Regards,

Fang Lizhi

In the weeks followed, many prominent intellectuals co-signed a couple of supporting open letters. The excitement of year 1989 was well underway.

Tuesday, January 1, 2008

New Year's Day, 1987

Two years before 1989, the biggest and also strangest student protest at Tiananmen Square in modern China occurred in a manner that surprised everybody, even the students themselves. It was a protest that was almost not meant to be.

In the Fall of 1986, a wave of student protests, triggered by local elections, had swept several southern cities. It climaxed at Shanghai, where on December 20, 1986, in defiance of direct orders from then Mayor Jiang Zemin (江泽民), about 100,000 students marched on the street and virtually shutdown the entire city. They were protesting brutal police actions the day before, as well as asking for liberty and democracy, a stable of student movements in China.

But things were unusually quiet in Beijing that December. Perhaps for the first time in China's history, a major student movement was going on, elsewhere, without Beida (Peking University, 北大) in the lead, or involved at all. It was so amazing that newspaper in Beijing ran stories praising Beida students for their focus in studies. Some in Beida quipped that since we didn't get to lead [the movement] this time, why bother to follow?

The Beijing authority was nevertheless very nervous. On December 26, the City Council rushed to approve a 10-point regulation on public demonstrations. It required organizers to apply for a permit way in advance and appeared to declare key areas, such as Tiananmen Square, off-limits for assemblies and protests. This so-called Beijing 10-Points might just have finally provided the trigger for Beida students to spring into action.

Near the end of the year, a few unsigned posters appeared in Beida with a simple message: “Let’s Go March at Tiananmen Square on New Year’s Day!” Other than challenging the new regulations, there appeared to be no purpose for the march and no organizers were noted. It was difficult to determine whether the posters were genuine or just a practical joke. In any event, few thought a march was a good idea and almost nobody openly indicated they would be going. But the government was nervous enough that they put out a stern warning in the press, promising to severely punish anyone who dared to defy the regulations and protest at Tiananmen. City residents were warned not to go to Tiananmen for any reason that day. The stakes for this phantom march was now on the rise.

The New Year's Day of 1987 was heavily overcast and very cold in Beijing. An interesting scene was unfolding at the Tiananmen Square in the morning. A large group of Young Pioneers, the Communist equivalent of Boy/Girl Scouts, were staging a large ceremony at the center. With that as a pretense, police lined up three-deep, completely sealed off the Square. Outside of the police line, however, there were onlookers who were obviously college students, milling around and gathering in spontaneous clusters here and there. A few attempts to rush the police line developed, but failed. Police started to tighten up their lines and ready for any charge from the crowd.

Around noon, a crowd with make-shift banners formed at the northeast corner of the Square. The leading banner was a large sheet of pink plastic cloth with a curious message: “Support Xiaoping! Support the Reform!” Whoever made that banner obviously did not want anyone to think that the crowd was anti-government. As the crowd marched around to gather up more participants, it turned away from the Square, chanting slogans and singing patriotic songs. The policemen were puzzled but relieved. After all, they were ordered to protect the Square itself. It was okay if the students wanted to march somewhere else.

But the relief was short-lived. As the crowd gathered momentum, it turned around and suddenly charged back into the Square. What followed was a scene of chaos and horror. Caught off-guard, the police rushed in to grab any students they could reach. Those caught were thrown into waiting police vans. Other students were beaten. When the crowd was finally dispersed, more than fifty students were detained; 34 of them were from Beida. Among them were two who would play very significant roles in 1989: Liu Gang (刘刚) and Feng Congde (封从德). They did not know each other then.

The evening news reported that some hundreds of "hooligans" tried to engage in disruptive behavior at Tiananmen Square that day but were unsuccessful when the police had "taken some of them away from the scene." The report was careful not to term those students as "arrested" or even "detained".

Later that night, in freezing cold and snow, thousands of students marched out of Beida again. They pushed through a police barrier and headed towards Tiananmen Square. They wanted to get their classmates back. It was not until 3am, when the march was half-way there, news caught up with them that all detained students had been released.

The march finally stopped, in an incredulous mode of disbelief, excitement, and relief. For the first time under the Communist rule, the government had succumbed to people’s pressure and released wrongfully detained citizens.

It was a special New Year, indeed.