In memory of the intellectuals who have 'disappeared' due to the virus of Chinese politics
by Xu Jinchuan

The screenwriter and novelist Xu Jinchuan recalls academics, publishers, activists, lawyers who have disappeared in the hands of the Chinese regime: the fruits of an ideological "cold winter". But the profession of a thinker is to seek the truth and reveal it, whatever the consequences. An essay published in "China Heritage", by the sinologist Geremie R. Barmé.

Rome (AsiaNews) - There are leading figures of Chinese culture who have "disappeared" in recent months. And this not because of Covid-19, but because of a (perhaps even more powerful) "virus": the one "that infects the political body of China".

Thus on November 16th, the sinologist Geremie Barmé presented an essay by the screenwriter and novelist Xu Jinchuan (徐錦川, 1960 -) on the “China Heritage” website of which he is director. The text, entitled "Those who would love", is an elegy for the men and women "we have lost’" or rather "who have been lost".

In his essay Xu quotes Prof. Xu Zhangrun, dismissed from university and practically under house arrest for criticizing Xi Jinping; the publisher Geng Xiaonan, who with her husband Qin Zhen are accused of "illegal trade" and await trial; the lawyer Chen Qiushi, who "disappeared" while producing information on the epidemic in Wuhan, then confined to his hometown in Shandong; activist Xu Zhiyong, who suffered four years in prison for his fight against corruption with the Movement of New Citizens; and several others. In concluding the presentation, Barmé quotes Albert Camus: “In a world of conflicts, a world of victims and executioners, the job of people who think is not to be on the side of the executioners”.

What is impressive is that while speaking of "disappeared" and "lost", the title is in the present, "Those who would love": a present and fruitful action. Below Xu Jinchuan's essay, with the English translation by Geremie R. Barmé. (B.C.)

Professor Xu Zhangrun turned up just as we were about about to start eating. He was all smiles as he said: just add a chair and a pair of chopsticks. We were all taken aback as no one had any inkling that he might be able to come. For his part Professor Xu confessed that, no, he hadn’t been invited and, for his sins, he should be relegated to the worst seat in the house. In the event, he just pulled up a seat and plopped himself down right next to me.

There’s no two ways about it: Professor Xu’s quite the character.

Thereupon, we set about drinking some hard liquor while digging into a Mongolian hotpot feast. We all chatted away, though we didn’t touch on politics. Ms Geng [Xiaonan] and Lawyer Chen [Qiushi] were also there. Despite his loquacious online performances, in private Young Chen is not at all garrulous.

We took a group photo after the meal, as you can see:

Left to right: Chen Qiushi is on the far left; Xu Zhangrun is third from the left; Geng Xiaonan is third from the right and Xu Jingchuan, the author of this essay, is on the far right. The photograph was marked up to confound automated Internet interference

When I was rummaging through the old photos on my computer while writing this essay, I came across this picture and felt a pang. That’s because all three of them [Xu Zhangrun, Geng Xiaonan and Chen Qiushi] are now beyond reach.

[Note: Xu Zhangrun is under virtual house arrest and, although he enjoys limited freedoms, for many except old friends he is all but uncontactable. Geng Xiaonan is in police custody. Accused of ‘illicit business activities’ she and her husband, Qin Zhen, are awaiting trial. Chen Qiushi, a well-known lawyer turned citizen journalist, was ‘disappeared’ in early February 2020 when reporting on COVID-19 from Wuhan, the epicentre of the then epidemic. He was reportedly released into the custody of his parents who live in Qingdao, Shandong province.]

Sometimes I’ll think of them when gazing out of my window. No matter how bright and sunny the day might be, inside my heart is frozen by this unforgiving season, for China is going through a political winter.

Looking back over the last few years, I realise that we moved from the early frosts to a deep freeze in what seemed like a matter of days. With the onset of this cruel season, things have simply gone on and on. Of course, there’s the hopeful few who like to quote that famous line by Percy Bysshe Shelley: ‘O, wind, if winter comes, can spring be far behind?’ Sure, they find a measure of comfort in such sentiments but, to my ears, it just sounds like a somniloquy — an empty phrase mumbled in one’s sleep. It just make me feel more downcast, even more depressed.

Then, suddenly, out of nowhere, I think about another winter. That too was a few years ago. It was already well into the season. Friends had put together a cultural event that involved the reciting of poetry. The venue was way over past the East Fourth Ring Road, and that meant it was a real trek from my place. On the subway going over there, I suddenly got a notification from the organisers: the authorities had closed the event down. Still that wasn’t going to deter anyone and they’d soon managed to find a spot over on the western side of the city. I simply changed trains and headed in the other direction. Then, my phone buzzed again: that second venue had also been shut down. Undaunted, the organisers said they’d be in touch again shortly.

While waiting I got a call from the poet Ye Kuangzheng. He wanted to know where he should be going, but I told him I didn’t know; perhaps we should just meet up while we waited. Ye had just reached Taoran Ting station, having taken the subway from Beijing South Station after arriving from Shandong [province, the capital of which is some 400 kilometres south of Beijing]. I headed over there and we met up on the subway platform[i].

In the event, I just about did a subway circumambulation before ending up at a hotel they’d found for us far from the centre of the city, a place beyond the North Fourth Ring Road. By the time all the participants — and there were dozens of us — gathered there we were pretty shellshocked, and there we were variously seated or standing, in a sombre mood. The organisers announced that instead of reciting our selected poems, each of us would be called on to say a few words.

When my turn came, I declared that since I’d made a real effort to memorise my poem I was going to recite it regardless. It was [‘The New Colossus’] a sonnet by the Jewish American poet Emma Lazarus:

Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,
With conquering limbs astride from land to land;
Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand
A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame
Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name
Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand
Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command
The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.

‘Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!’ cries she
With silent lips. ‘Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!’

The authorities had people there, too, listening in, on the sly.

That was when I finally got to meet both Professor Gao Quanxi[ii] and Jin Gang [金鋼] in person — up until then, we had long enjoyed a ‘meeting of minds’ on the Internet.

After the event a clutch of us found a place for a meal. I was squashed in right next to Dr Xu (not the Professor Xu mentioned above [rather it was the civil rights activist Xu Zhiyong]). He had this determined air about him and he didn’t say much. He seemed weighed down, melancholy even. At the time, he’d only been out of jail a short time — and, as I write this now, he’s been beyond contact for nearly a year. It seems that his fate is to be repeatedly ‘thrown inside’.[iii]

In the group photograph taken that day, I guessed that over ten percent of the participants were either ‘released after serving a sentence’, ‘released on medical grounds’ or ‘living under constant police surveillance’. Of course, in the narrow legal sense, none of them had been punished for what they had said or written; various nebulous charges had been leveled against them. The upshot of all of this has been that, despite the relief that these victims were free, [many would daresay be convinced that] supporting universal values was not only dangerous, it would result in you being cowed.

This then is the fate of China’s intellectuals.

Regardless, they do not succumb to feeling aggrieved. It is inevitable that when a country is in crisis that its thinking people are the first to suffer. After all, intellectuals have a disproportionate responsibility to pursue the truth and reveal what is really going on, at least in comparison to everyone else living under the regnant political system. What does that old expression about ‘studying the classics’ really mean? It means learning to express your doubts, to critique, to raise your voice in a clamour. That is the duty and responsibility of thinking people, just as it is inevitable that one will live with the consequences.

They suffer because they truly love.

At the height of the viral alarm earlier this year a group of us were longing to drown our sorrows, so we found a little eatery that was still operating where we could catch up. A few days later one of our little band also disappeared. He, too, was now beyond reach. Why, I don’t even dare mention his name here.

I’m not really an intimate or close friend of any of the people that I’ve mentioned in the above. Yet, I feel that pang whenever I think of them. It is as though I, too, am behind bars. It leaves me unsettled and unable to continue reading quietly any more.

Sometimes, I might spend a day staring out the window. Gazing into the hazy distance my heart feels as empty as the vast vault of heaven above.




[i] For a poem by Ye Kuangzheng, see ‘Hollow Men, Wooden People’China Heritage, Christmas Eve, December 2017.

[ii] See Gao Quanxi 高全喜, ‘A Breach of the Law, a Betrayal of Autonomy’China Heritage, 18 May 2019.

[iii] See Xu Zhiyong 許志永, ‘Dear Chairman Xi, It’s Time for You to Go’ChinaFile, 26 February 2020. Xu was detained by the authorities in Guangzhou on 15 February 2020.