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Xu Wenli

Xu Wenli and He Xintong
Xu Wenli and his wife He Xintong (2014 at their home)

... was born in 1943 in Jiangsu province. From 1964-69 he served in the People's Liberation Army before being assigned to a post in the Beijing railway administration. In the late 1970s Xu became a leading figure of the Democracy Wall Movement. In November 1978 he published the first issue of the journal "April 5th Forum" that continued to appear for two years. On April 9, 1981, Xu Wenli was arrested together with other leading dissidents. In June 1980 he had discussed the founding of an opposition party at an activists' Meeting in Beijing's Ganjiakou District. Because of this he was formally accused of trying to form a "counter-revolutionary organization" and sentenced to 15 years in prison.

After his release in 1993 Xu continued his political networking, in 1998 he co-founded the "Democratic Party of China". He was immediately arrested again and sentenced to another 13 years in jail. The US government and many Western politicians and NGOs pressured for Xu's release, and on December 24, 2002, he was eventually allowed to travel to the United States "for medical treatment". He received an honorary doctorate at Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island, where he continued to teach until 2013.  

Interview with Xu Wenli (on June 1, 2014 at his home in Providence, Rhode Island, USA)

Here you find the Chinese text of the interview.

Xu Wenli on his family background and his own political history

Interviewer (Helmut Opletal): If you look back today on the "Beijing Spring" Democracy Movement between 1978 and 1980 or 1981, what feelings or thoughts are crossing your mind?

Xu Wenli: I am 71 now. The things that happened more than 30, 35 years ago, look like youthful escapades to older people now. Although I myself was a bit older than the other Democracy Wall activists, roughly three to six or seven years older, I was still a young person too. If an older person thinks of what he has done in his youth, there is one question he has to put to himself: Was it correct what you have done, and was it worth doing it? Why am I saying this? After 1949, the Communist Party gained ist power by opposing a non-democratic Guomindang. But in the end, Guomindang's question was, how much democracy do we need, while the communists asked, do we need democracy at all. The Communist Party criticized that the Guomindang was not democratic, but ended without democracy itself. [...]

So after 1949, democracy gradually disappeared from China, we still hat the Political Consultative Conference [a parliamentary body regrouping various minorities and remnants of non-communist parties], the democratic groups still had some independence, but that all ended by 1957. It was in 1957 also when Chinese intellectuals last time revolted. The next several decades, Chinese intellectuals did not speak up any more, actually nobody at all could speak openly. It was in the 1976 "April Fifth Movement" [Tiananmen Square Protests commemorating Zhou Enlai] that people started to become anti-Maoist, but this was not very easy.

It was only in 1978 at the Democracy Wall that this mood turned into expressing differing views and opinions through independent journals and organizations run by the people. So when I joined the Democracy Wall Movement as a Young man, this movement was definitely a milestone on the road to progress in democracy. Looking on it from today, I have done the right thing, and I did not just commit a youthful indescretion. Maybe I did not think too much about my own safety and the possible dangers. But we did have this sort of courage and did not think what we could gain or loose. Looking back today, the Democracy Wall Movement was necessary. It was a milestone on China's way to democracy, even though there were some aspects we did not do as well as we should have.

Interviewer: When did you first get in touch with the ideas of democracy, reform and liberalization?

Xu: For this I have to talk a bit of my family. My father was a doctor during the war against Japan, he was teaching at a medical school. He had to evacuate his students to the south, but when he saw many fighters not just dying, but nobody helping the wounded, he encouraged his students to stay back with him. So the work and the background of my father were all connected to the Anti-Japanese War, and that has also greatly influenced me and my personality, mainly in two respects: As he was a doctor and a scientist, we were a very liberal and a very democratic family. Having grown up as a child in such a democratic and liberal atmosphere, despite maybe some communist brainwashing, the effects of being surrounded by a family that highly esteemed democracy and freedom, could not be easily lost, I was born with it, it stems from the family I grew up with.

So there some People who have met me - like Tienchi Martin-Liao [an academic human rights activist from Taiwan, living in Germany] - who said to me that I was different from the others in the Democracy Movement, that I did not have such a complicated thinking, that I was very simple and had an inherited attitude of cherishing Democracy and freedom. Marie Holzman [a French sinologist] told me, that my way of speaking was different from others, I never say something was like that for sure, I always say maybe it was like that, and I was able to respect the opinions of others.

Some academics from Taiwan have also told me that I was different from other people from the mainland, like from traditional society, the "old society" as the communists would say. [...] Another thing was that my father's family was a big family. We were eight children, and I was the eighth. [...] Such a family background makes you carry a high responsibility towards your country and your people, and you cannot be brainwashed that easily by communist influences. I do not say this did not happen, there was certainly some, but definitely less. I was also attached to politics and literature, and I read a lot of literary works from the West, these books are full of such ideas of freedom and democracy.

Interviewer: How did you get to read Western literature?

Xu: At that time you could still go to a library and borrow such books ...

Interviewer: During the sixties?

Xu: Yes, during the sixties. In the fifties I was still a child, but when I entered middle school from 1957, I got in touch with with Western literature, and I read all the volumes I could get hold of. That was still possible.

Interviewer: How was your family then, during the fifties and sixties?

Xu: My father had already died.

Interviewer: Was that before 1949?

Xu: It was in 1951. Then my family moved around all the time, I was born in Jiangxi, then we went to Nanjing, then to Fuzhou, then back to our family village, [...] then Beijing, Changchun, [...] it was there, in a very good middle School that I had the chance to read a lot of Western literary works and get in touch with some ideas from the West. Later, when I came to Beijing, I learned more about the society, and I also read more theoretical books. At that time I was very interested in the society, but my view on such issues was strongly influenced by the Communist Party. I was worried about "revisionism" and thought that we had to oppose the revisionism of the Soviet Union, the "Nine Points of Criticis" of the Soviet Communist Party that strongly influenced me. I then also read some Marxist books and Lenin's biography and some of his works which all affected my thinking.

But it was the Cultural Revolution that profoundly changed things, I was in the army then and could see the chaos in society. I could also see the way how Mao Zedong was eulogized, how the Lin Biao affair could happen. [...] At that time the "May Seventh Cadre Schools" [combining agricultural work with the study of Mao's writings in order to "re-educate" cadres and intellectuals during the Cultural Revolution] had virtually become forced labor camps, and sending people "to the mountains and to the countryside" just meant destroying the students, destroying the culture. That was when my ideas started to change. Although my father had passed away, I still basically grew up among intellectuals and had no occasion to go to the countryside. 1963 I did not want to go to a fenced-off university campus, and I traveled myself to rural areas where I saw for the first time how backward they were. Later, I became a soldier, and I experienced some examples of disparity and other dark chapters inside the Chinese army.

I demobilized in 1969 and "joined the society". I became a worker, which allowed me to experience the very low status of Chinese workers even more. Although the Communist Party asserted that "the workers' class is leading everything", they did not possess any power. That's why I got to think that this society was extremely unequal. Without a chance of having lived in countryside, having served as a soldier, having toiled as a worker, one did not understand the real situation of China's society. If you only moved among intellectuals, like my sisters who were college teachers and researchers, then you could not understand how China really was. Understanding how China really was, a great country with such a long history - how could it become that poor, how could the life of common people become that miserable? It was a direct result of what the Communist Party had done. So that made me think that one had to change this. But the feeling was that the time was not yet ripe, that it was not possible yet.

But in 1976 this chance had come, three important leaders of the Communist Party had died, and the "April Fifth Movement" could take place. Although I was not a leader, I did participate in it. I knew what people thought and hoped for at that time. By 1978 some had already expressed political ideas and opinions at the Democracy Wall, and I thought we should pull together and create a magazine to make our own views public. I was probably the first one at the the Democracy Wall who had the idea of creating a magazine. [...]

The beginning of modern publications in China came out of the people. The first Chinese newspaper was founded in Macau by missionaries, and this first modern paper was a private one, not from the government. During the nationalist period before 1949, there existed many private papers, and I though it should not only be to the Communist Party to decide everything, the only one that had the right to speak out. We also needed something from the people. When I wrote my founding statement for the "April Fifth Forum", I particularly emphasized this point: On the 9,6 million square kilometers of China's soil - with the exception of Taiwan (I did not mention Hong Kong at that time) - there was not a single private periodical, therefore we could start publishing one. That is why on November 26, 1978, I pasted a kind of newspaper to the Democracy Wall, calling it "April Fifth Paper", it was the forerunner of the "April Fifth Forum".

So why did my thinking change? Of course I was influenced by my family, and I had read myslf Western literary works, including books by Karl Marx. I remember very clearly, that Marx opposed the censorship of book and periodicals at his time. And he was against keeping political prisoners in solitary confinment. It is clearly writen in Marx' works: Solitary confinement is a very cruel punishment. This was in line also with the degree and concept of democracy and freedom that I had inherited from my family. What Marx created in the end, was a very totalitarian communism, but we can see from Marx' books, and not only from today's analysis, that at his time he criticized the lack of democracy.

Interviewer: Would it be correct to say you did not suffer from communist repression in the fifties and sixties?

Xu: It was not very much, but there was some at the beginning of the 1960s. That was the time when class struggle and family backgrounds became important. When we had to fill in questionnaires, there were two answers they wanted: One was that my father was a doctor in "the enemy's army". In fact, my father was a general in the war against the Japanese, he fought for the country and the people, so what does "the enemy's" mean then? But the communists insisted he was with the Guomindang [Nationalist Party], so he was an "enemy's" army doctor. [Translator's note: His unit fought for Chiang Kai-shek at the beginning, but later joined the communist troops in their resistance against the Japanese.] But there was a big contradiction, as my father was also named a "revolutionary martyr" because he had died "in public service". How come? During the Korean war, the communists suspected the Americans to drop biological weapons not only in Korea, but also on the Fujin Province frontline [opposite Taiwan], and they asked my father to go there, because in fact he was not a surgery specialist, but he had also studied biology, so he was ordered to do some investigations there.

My father always wanted to do his best, so he led a unit to go there for several days. But there was a flood at the Min River, and my fathers truck plunged into the water. Most of the people died, only few survived, and the dead were the first victims "in public service" after 1949, so my father also became a "revolutionary martyr". So when I filled in a form on my family background, I had to write "enemy army doctor" and "martyr" at the same time. That created some problems for me, later, when I was a soldier, there was no problem, that is why I say that my family did not directly suffer from communist repression. But when the Cultural Revolution started, we actually did. For example, my elder brother was accused to be the "son of an enemy army doctor", one sister was also attacked, but they were not locked up like some others. My father also fell victim to the "Three Anti" and "Five Evils" campaigns [in 1951 and 1952, targetting former Guomindang collaborators and corrupt cadres].

Just after the establishment of communist power, they started to harm my father, and it left a deep Impression on me. My father was the director of a hospital, and they just said every GMD official had to be corrupt. Maybe today every communist official is corrupt, but for my father this sounded strange. We had gone to the front-line for the country and for the nation, and there were so many in our family that we had no possessions at all. For everyone in our Family there existed one chest to store our things when we moved between the front-line and the rear area. So we did not possess anything, still the communists locked my father up, ordering him to confess. they let the lights on all night, preventing him from sleeping, that is how they tried to demoralize him, "cooking the eagle" as they said. But after one week they released him, I was very touched by this. When my father came back, he talked to me ...

Interviewer: ... that was when?

Xu: After 1950, when the "Three Anti" and "Five Evils" campaigns had started, intellectuals and people who had worked with the nationalist army came under political pressure. In the past I did not know that my father had been a major general of the Guomindang. It was only during the Cultural Revolution, when my brother was targetted, that they said that they had found some material in the Nanjing archives that proved that my brother was a bastard, a bastard son of a Guomindang army doctor in the rank of a major general, only then I got to know that my father was with the GMD during the Anti-Japanese War.

Xu Wenli on contacts with representatives of the Communist Party

Interviewer: At that time - 1978/79 - did you have contacts with representatives of the political system, with high-ranking Party and government cadres? And how did they talk to you, could you meet them directly?

Xu: Personally, I did not have any direct contact. But some others told me that they had been contacted by representatives of the Communist Party, and they were even offered important positions in the Central Committee or Secretariat of the Youth League. I myself never received such propositions from a Party representative, but I did have a personal contact twice. Once I took the initiative myself to meet [Deputy Editor-in-Chief of the "People's Daily"] Wang Ruoshui, because I thought the paper could use its big influence to do something for Liu Qing [who had been arrested for publishing a secretly recorded transcript of Wei Jingsheng's court trial]. In our view, Liu Qing's doing had not been illegal as it was a "public" trial, and it should be allowed to publish the proceedings. ... So I just went to his office. ... I actually did not expect to meet him in person, but I wanted to give it a try. I had never met Wang Ruoshui before. ... In reality he was an acting chief editor, above him there was only Hu Jiwei, who was more a supervising editor who did not really run the day to day business of the paper. This was Deputy Chief Editor Wang Ruoshui's job who was actually in charge of conducting the daily affairs of the People's Daily.

Interviewer: So you just rang the door-bell and asked to talk to Wang Ruoshui?

Xu: Exactly like that. I was accompanied by two colleagues, but one - as I found out later - worked for the State Security Bureau. He was certainly not a full-time agent, but probably coerced to cooperate with the security system.

Interviewer: Did he also work for the "April 5th Forum"?

Xu: Yes he did. The other person who accompanied me was Yang Jing [another editor of the April 5th Forum]. So we went to the People's Daily office to present our case and ask for support. At least we hoped that Liu Qing would be spared from a court trial. We wanted to argue that it could not have been illegal to report on a public trial. Among the authors from the Democracy Wall there were two diverging opinions. Some - including myself - thought that it would be better to exert some influence on the authorities behind the scenes. I did know that the People's Daily run a publication called "Internal Reference News" intended for high-ranking officials only, and we thought it could publish certain informations to influence their decisions. My opinion was that we should not talk too much in public about this affair, but rather try to talk to people in the background. But others, including Yang Jing, held different views. They insisted to stage a protest at Tiananmen Square and start a hunger strike in front of the People's Heroes Monument to pressure for Liu Qing's release. I thought that this could hardly benefit Liu Qing, but would only complicate and exacerbate the case. But that is why I wanted to have someone with a different opinion like Yang Jing to accompany me. He should be able to see where his method could lead to. 

But I had not calculated that Yang would ask another person to come along, that was the one who called himself Suo Zhongkui. This was probably not his real name. He was supposed to be a carpenter, and he definitely knew to make printing blocks. But for sure, he had sneaked in on behalf of the State Security Bureau. His first name "Zhongkui" is also the name of a deity that catches evil spirits with a chain, and it seems that this was his assignment with us, that's why he was given this pseudonym. During our meeting he always seemed to doze, not interested in anything. But he knew to make printing blocks, that is why we hired him.

So Yang Jing had brought him along. I had not told him beforehand that I wanted to meet Wang Ruoshui, because I was not sure who was actually in charge and who we would be able to meet. I did know that they were closely monitoring the independent journals, but who was responsible for this, and how they were actually dealing with this subject, I did not know. At the reception office they made a phone call to find the person in charge or his assistant. That was Wang Yong'an, Wang Ruoshui's secretary, who then came down to meet us, saying that we were lucky as Wang Ruoshui was actually present that day. I don't remember his exact words, but he said that Wang Ruoshui was ready to meet us. So we went upstairs.

We had already prepared a letter expressing our hope that the Communist Party would correctly handle this matter and release Liu Qing. In this letter I quoted a sentence by Peng Zhen [a former mayor of Beijing] who was Acting Secretary of the Politico-Juridicial Committee. In a statement he had called for a correct dealing with movements coming out of the people, talking also about criticism and dissenting opinions from the population among other things. This I had quoted in our letter. As it was my first meeting with Wang Ruoshui, I did not know yet that he was Deputy Chief Editor and a participant of the "Forum on Theory Work" [held in early 1979 to criticize political aberrations of the Cultural Revolution and Mao's policies]. This forum was very important because it was held at the time of the Democracy Wall. But I did not know then that Wang Ruoshui was a leading representative of this faction inside the party.

We had not arrived yet at his office when he already greeted us in the hallway. We handed our letter to him which he read carefully. He only made a brief remark: "I understand the meaning of Peng Zhen's sentence you are quoting, but I suggest you better leave it out." Hearing this I felt relief as he had understood even better the us what Peng had tried to express. ... When he said that we should better not quote Peng Zhen, he meant that we should not take him too much up on his words, like telling him, you, Peng Zhen, have told to respect criticism from the people, and someone who expresses criticism must therefore not be punished. Wang did not say it like this, but it meant that Peng Zhen would possibly not be too pleased when we tried to insist on this quote. But the fact that Wang Ruoshui had understood why we cited Peng Zhen, but should better leave this sentence out, confirmed my feeling that he wanted to help us. And that we should not insinuate something to a politician as this could make things worse. Peng Zhen's main assignment at that time was to deal with cases of people who had been accused of being enemies of the revolution, with dissidents. So we should better avoid putting him at odds with us, and simply ask for not trying Liu Qing in court and releasing him. We then rewrote the letter and sent it again.

This was my first meeting with a high-ranking communist official, and I had met him on my own initiative. The other one was Tang Xin. He had been commissioned by the Communist Party to meet and interview us as a journalist. He worked for the "Internal Reference News" of the Beijing Daily, and he was assigned to make these investigations by three politicians, namely Deng Yingchao [member of the Politburo Zhou Enlai's widow], Chen Yun [Deputy Chairman of the CPC] and Peng Zhen. ... This he told me much later when he had fallen himself into disgrace and moved from the "Internal Reference News" to an agricultural department. That was because Tang Xin was the son of [former Minister of Metallurgy and Petroleum Engineering] Tang Ke.

Tang Xin had been charged by these politicians to investigate around the Democracy Wall, and he eventually drafted a quite sympathetic report on our editorial boards. I was later allowed to read it, but I do not possess a copy myself. He gave many details on the Democracy Movement and wrote up his own assessments. ... He also described the editorial members of each of the journals, especially the main ones, the number of contributors and the political views of the predominant figures. I remember well what he wrote on Chen Ziming and Wang Juntao, he described them as well as our "April 5th Forum" as long-distance runners, but [Wei Jingsheng's] "Explorations" as short-distance runner, adding that in politics only long-distance runners could succeed, the others would quickly falter. I remember this sentence very clearly. He also wrote on me saying that among all the leading representatives of independent journals, I were relatively moderate and mature. It seems that among all his assessments, he held the most favorable for me, and in his final remarks this sounded even more positive.

Interviewer: How did you manage to read this report?

Xu: That was later, at the end of 1979, when reprecentatives of the Youth League Central Committee talked to us. Among them was Tang Ruoxin, who was in charge of the Policies Strategy Office, another one was Zhong Peizhang who worked for the same office. He had been labeled a "rightist" in the past. In late 1979, or maybe early 1980, it happed once or twice that they invited those of us who represented the Democracy Wall Movement and who had not been arrested yet, for a round table to ask us about our views and opinions. It was then that Tang Ruoxin let me read Tang Xin's report, adding that they already had some good understanding of us as Tang Xin had written quite positively on our people.

Interviewer: How many were you at these meetings?

Xu: More than ten all together, a few from each of the different journals. We talked for several hours. ... They did not say much themselves, they just asked us how we viewed the Democracy Wall, our opinions and criticisms, that's what they wanted to hear from us. I had the impression that they were rather open-minded and relaxed. When Tang Ruoxin handed Tang Xin's reported to me, he especially pointed to his conclusion on which course China should take in the future. On could actually feel that Tang Xin held sympathies for us, at least a little bit of sympathy. He concluded that there should be space for diverging opinions in China, including critical ones. It was a very extensive report. I think you should be able to find it somewhere, it was not top secret. It was only later that I realized that Tang Xin was also commissioned by these politicians to investigate into our personal lives, including our families. He even came into my home to interview me.

At that time I was still very suspicious. Why could this simple conversation with Wang Ruoshui become such a problem for him? I was intrigued by this and thought that Wang Yong'an was behind it. Wang Ruoshui later excluded this possibility, he said it were our own people, one of those I had brought along. And as it could not have been Yang Jing, Suo Zhongkui was the only one who remained. ... We had not even resent the corrected letter, we only brought it two or three days later, when the CPC Central Committee and Deng Xiaoping had already received an angry report by the Public Security Bureau, stating that Wang Ruoshui had sympathized with Xu Wenli and the independent journals. ... Wang has told much later that such a report reached Deng Xiaoping's office immediately after our meeting, not more than half a day later.

Deng clamored how could it be that our mouthpiece, the Party's official newspaper, could have socialize with them, giving them advice how to keep Peng Zhen happy. The report actually contained details like this. They eventually sent Hu Yaobang to ask Wang Ruoshui why he maintained such contacts. Wang Ruoshui remained very calm, answering that there were no contacts, and it had been a random meeting. But later this meeting with us was cited as one of the reasons why he was expelled from the Communist Party and had to undergo disciplinary procedures. That happened later in the 1987 during the campaign against "bourgeois liberalization". [After being expelled from the Party, Wang emigrated to the US.] Wang Ruoshui tried to argue against these accusations. He said that he did not know who exactly was Xu Wenli. Maybe he had some information an me through Wang Yong'an. And we also sent a copy of each edition of the journals to the People's Daily editorial office, so they were able to read them. At that time he told Hu Yaobang that Xu Wenli was relatively moderate, not like he had thought before. Hu Yaobang is quoted to have said only one sentence on this: Xu Wenli was somebody who only gives up when there is really no other choice. He is hell-bent to get his own way, so there was no need to assist him. Wang later quoted this sentence by Hu Yaobang and his assessment of my person in the preface he has written for one of my books . ...


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