One of the wonderments in modern dictatorships are those few brave individuals – a Nelson Mandela or a Vaclav Havel – who eloquently lob a bold idea into society, only to see it ripple steadily into a tidal wave. China may now be in such a ripple moment.
The ruling Communist Party, so adept at suppressing dissidents, may never have seen the likes of Xu Zhiyong. Last month, a secretive court sentenced the human rights advocate to four years in prison (on dubious charges). But in exercising one of his few legal rights during the trial, Mr. Xu was able to read from a statement. It is one that will certainly appeal to the Chinese concept of conscience (liangzhi)and put the rulers in Beijing on the defensive.
Like other effective dissidents in history, from Jesus to Martin Luther King Jr., Xu does not want to overthrow the existing laws. Rather he seeks to fulfill them. China’s 1982 Constitution has plenty of individual rights and state obligations. What’s missing in China today, said Xu, is love, specifically the golden rule as expressed in kindness, tolerance, compassion, and dedication to one another.
Rights, being natural to each individual and not given by the state, require citizens to act responsibly toward each other, usually in “small acts,” he said. Xu asserts that more Chinese now grasp this idea, even if the Communist Party refutes it with violent crackdowns:
“So I have to tell you the times have changed, that a new era of politics is afoot in which the greatest strength in society is not violence but love,” he wrote.
In 2012, Xu founded the New Citizens Movement with a few fellow activists to work within the political system. Until his arrest last August, this trained lawyer sought to fulfill the rights of disadvantaged people. These included the homeless and rural migrants in cities who can’t send their children to local schools. He spent winters delivering coats and steamed buns to the poor on the street. He bemoans that parents must pay bribes to get their children into kindergarten.
Their plight, he realized, is caused by a big lie – the party’s pretense of representing the people when the people really have no say. “Humans are political animals, in need of more than a full stomach and warm clothes. Humans also need freedom, justice, and participation in governance of their own country,” he wrote.
“If the country’s basic political system is such an open lie, how is it possible to build a society that values trust?”
He worries that the Chinese people now walk around wearing frozen masks in their dealings with one another. They debate whether to help a fallen elderly person. Social injustice has intensified, driven by the party’s monopoly on power and the wealth gained by a connected elite.
“China’s biggest problem is falsehood,” he says, which accounts for his attempts to expose the hidden assets of high-ranking party officials – and which likely was the reason he was thrown in jail. (Foreign reporters, too, are being forced to leave Beijing after writing stories about the wealthy elite.)
“China belongs to each and everyone one of us, and to accept that, it is up to us to defend and define the boundaries of conscience and justice,” he stated. "The promise of people’s power should not be a lie."
He wishes only the best for those trapped by a power not given them by the people: “When you see politics as endless shadows and reflections of daggers and swords, as blood falling like rain with its smell in the wind, you have too much fear in your hearts.”
History has shown the power of such words to transform kingdoms and dictatorships.
Xu may not regret his imprisonment. “In a servile society prone widely to submission, there will always need to be someone to be the first to stand up, to face the risks and pay the price for social progress,” he says.
As Xu’s speech seeps past the Internet censors and reaches more Chinese, it has the potential to strip away a lie and replace it with something solid: true citizenship, built from individual rights and values universal to all societies. Those ideas can’t be locked up.