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Sasha Gong (Gong Xiaoxia)

Sasha Gong (2009 as a Republican Party candidate in Virgina)

Gong Xiaoxia was born in 1956 in Beijing, but grew up in a family of intellectuals in Guangzhou (Canton). Her grandfather was labeled a "counter-revolutionary" and spent two decades in labor camps. In 1965, Gong's parents were - because of their "bad" family background - also forced to move to the countryside. Gong Xiaoxia, who had been in elementary school for only three years, could not receive any more formal education. Later the family was allowed to return to Guangzhou, Gong was sent to work in a factory.

When she was 18 years old, she joined the Li Yizhe Group in Guangzhou. The main authors (Li Zhengtian, Chen Yiyang and Wang Xizhe) had posted a dazibao with the title "On Democracy and Legality under Socialism" where they criticized the Cultural Revolution and the excesses of the political system. Shortly after, several dozen members of the group were put under house-arrest and investigation, and attacked in public meetings. But it was the later Prime Minister and CCP Secretary General Zhao Ziyang (then provincial Party Secretary in Guangdong), who held his protective hand over the members of the group. In early 1979, after the reformers had assured their power in Beijing, the Li Yizhe Group was rehabilitated in an official ceremony in Guangzhou.

The same year, Gong Xiaoxia successfully (with one of the best results in the whole country) passed her entry exams to study history at the Peking University. In 1995, she received a scholarship to study for a PhD in sociology at Harvard University. After her graduation, she did some teaching and research, and worked for media. Later Gong Xiaoxia became the director of the Cantonese Service of the "Voice of Free Asia".

In 2009 Gong (meanwhile as a US citizen named "Sasha Gong") published her autobiography "Born American: A Chinese Woman's Dream of Liberty", and in 2010 she ran - unsuccessfully - for the Republican Party for a seat in the Virginia State Assembly. She described her personal experiences in American politics in another book that was published in Chinese in 2011 in Shanghai ("Living Democracy: I Want to Represent You"). In 2013, Sasha Gong became the director of the Chinese Language Service of the US government-funded international broadcaster "Voice of America".



Interview with Sasha Gong (on June 10, 2014 at her VOA office in Washington DC)

Interviewer (Helmut Opletal): Let me first ask you, how did it happen that you got involved with the Li Yizhe Group in the first place? How did you get interested in what they were suggesting?

Sasha Gong: Mainly because of stupidity. I came from an intellectual family, and was really bad at politics, and I still have no idea why I always get involved in politics. But to me, I do believe, real politics is people's business. So real politics is anti-politics. Hence I have always been in the anti-politics business. At the time of 1974 I was working as a mechanic in a factory. It was by Chinese standards not too small, and I was making candy.

Interviewer: How old where you then?

Gong: I had joined the factory when I was sixteen, but by that time I was almost eighteen. I had not finished elementary school. I only had three years of schooling, because my family was considered a "bad", an "anti-revolutionary" family, and it had been kicked to the countryside.

Interviewer: Why that?

Gong: My grandfather had some history with the KMT, it is a long history, his family was just considered "bad", politically "bad". Of my two grandfathers, the one from my mother's side was a lawyer, and a historian educated at Columbia University. You guess how "bad" and "rightist" this was in the fifties and sixties. My other grandfather was a general who fought for the KMT, he later sympathized with the Communists, so he was "bad" for each side. That way my family got into political trouble, and we were sent to the countryside in 1965, even before the Cultural Revolution. I was nine at that time, and I received no more formal education. But I was always a bookworm, I love books, I always loved to read. And being taken out of school, was a lucky thing for me, because I did not have to endure the communist education in school, they had to read Mao every day, I did not.

Interviewer: Did your family suffer in the Cultural Revolution, they did, I suppose?

Gong: Oh yeah, of course, everybody was in jail or labor camp, my grandfather from my mother's side was in jail for two decades, my aunt was in jail for eleven years. In 1968, everybody was in a labor camp. The sad thing with such situations, as you know as a China specialist, is everybody's family. Sometimes I have met Americans, they said: Oh, someone in jail, how bad, the communists… I said no, no, no. At that time everybody was affected, my history is common. That is the real tragedy. I never thought my family's history was all that tragic until I came to the United States. Only here I realized that people should not live that way.

Interviewer: So in your home there were no nice words about Mao and the communists?

Gong: Of course, but openly we had to say nice words about them! We just tried to stay away from politics. But I have always read a lot. I grew up with Russian literature, I loved Dostoyevsky and Tolstoy, and music, which were all banned. But I read whatever I could find. I remember in 1968 there was one book that will always be engrained in my mind. You know, the Chinese printed a lot of "neibu" [internally circulated] books. This book had no design, a blue cover, a very plain name. So when the Red Guards ransacked the houses, they took many books, but some of these books were circulated again. 

This book was very thick, and very simple looking. I read through it in a couple of hours. It was "One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich" [published in 1962 by the later disgraced Soviet writer Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, also the author of "The Gulag Archipelago"]. What shocked me that time: I read it as a novel. In my opinion it was not the best written one, but so what. It never occurred to me that things had been so bad until the last page, when they cursed Stalin for having made up all that misery. And as my aunt was in jail, my grandfather had been arrested in front of us at that time, it suddenly occurred to me that this was injustice. You know how an idea comes to you, when suddenly some things connect, and you have a thought… 

Interviewer: You were thirteen, fourteen that time? 

Gong: I was twelve. And there were so many things happening around us. There were about fifteen people living in my building, but no adults any more, except for a woman who had no job. She was the only one not in a labor camp. All the children were wandering around, there was nobody there. So it just hit me, that was the injustice I was seeing. I was thinking of Turgenev, Dostoyevsky and all those books. I felt a very deep sense of injustice, for all that what the Communists did when they took over, to the KMT [Chinese nationalists] and all that. Mao's evil just hit me like that. And in that time it seemed the scariest thing that could happen. 

Maybe I felt like a Christian who one day comes to think that God does not exist. It may hit and scare someone. So it hit me, and I was scared, I was waiting for some thunder. It did not happen of course, but in the next few years, I suffered so much, it was very hard to separate what you feel, what's in your heart, what you believe that is justice, what is right, or what is the official saying. You just suffer. It's madness, it's schizophrenic, it's hard to deal with, especially for a teenager. 

Whatever you say, you have to manage to better not to say anything. I love talking, but in those years I was a quiet one, no talking, because whatever I said, it came out either untrue to me or untrue to others. I could not have done anything right, it were very tough years. I became a sort of rebellious youth - to hell with this and to hell with that. And I read a lot. 

I continued reading a lot, until one day in 1974. I still vividly remember that day: I came out of my night shift, it had ended at 7 am, I rode my bicycle home, and I passed by Zhongshan Wu Lu [No. 5 Sun Yatsen Street, in downtown Guangzhou], there were lots of people reading a poster, so I also went to read. I stood there for hours, read it again and again. I was even crying in front of it. This was something I was looking for: You can speak it out, and it comes from your heart. And somehow they managed to justify what they wrote, it sounded politically correct. So I was crying like a baby standing there. Then I saw a small note, just one letter-size page where it was written: "Many people would like a printed version of this. So we need donations of paper, and we need volunteers to help us to print it." I said: "Great." So I rushed and spent whatever money I had to buy some paper. I carried the paper and went to see Li Zhengtian [the main author of Li Yizhe dazibao]. Ask him, he will remember it vividly. I went there, I met his friends, talked to them. I volunteered to do a lot of little things. I carried the glue for example, copied things, I did whatever I could, and became a very active member. 

Interviewer: When you read this dazibao at that time, how did you understand it? In your impression, what did it mean, what did it say? To me it seems the language they used, was very careful. But how did you understand it? 

Gong: "Fengjian faxisi zhuanzheng" [feudalistic fascist dictatorship], do you remember these words? When I grew up watching people being thrown into jail, being executed, in 1970 during the "Yi da san fan" [一打三反, "One Strike-Three Anti" campaign; launched in February 1970 to battle "graft and embezzlement", "profiteering" and "extravagance and waste", but in reality hitting out on all sorts of non-conformist behavior and criticism] we were forced to watch executions every ten days. We could see that a life is so easily been taken. It was a very traumatizing experience, and I have therefore become a very much anti-war person. 

One history we Chinese have all read, is about the anti-fascism campaign [of the Komintern] during the Second World War. I knew that history quite well, I had also understood what fascism meant. Dimitrov, a Bulgarian, he was once chairman of the Komintern, was sentenced to jail [Georgi Dimitrov, 1882 to 1949, first communist leader of Bulgaria, arrested in Berlin in 1933 for alleged complicity in setting the Reichstag on fire], and we have all read his self-defense in court. I still can memorize a few words; and we have also read all these heroic Russian revolutionary novels. One novel of which I am not even sure if people outside China know about it, is called "The Gadfly" [by Irish-Russian writer Ethel Voynich, published in 1897, set in 1840s' revolutionary Italy]. I grew up with it, and we thought we understood why revolution should overthrow such horrible dictatorships. So when the dazibao spoke about feudal fascist dictatorship, it was immediately connected to our personal experience. 

Interviewer: To you, it was 100 percent clear it was attacking Mao? 

Gong: Not exactly, because it was attacking Lin Biao at that time [Mao's deputy killed in an air crash in 1971 when he allegedly tried to flee after an aborted coup], but we thought it was attacking everything we had experienced. I always like to say, the most powerful thing is not the truth itself, but it is that you can speak the truth about your personal experience. That became powerful when I stood there. It was so powerful to me, that when everybody warned, you may go to jail, you may suffer, I still did not care… 

Interviewer: … so people told you, you might … 

Gong: … oh yeah, everybody said so, when I got involved. My family kicked me out, everybody. I did not care, I thought, life with this or without this, it's my choice. Jailed, killed, so what? I was jailed anyway in this damp factory everyday, where I had not much to do. 

Interviewer: But let me ask you again, when you came out from your night shift, when you saw this. Were there many people there? 

Gong: Oh, yes, there were always lots of people… 

Interviewer: So for how long did the dazibao hang there? Wasn’t it taken away? 

Gong: It was taken away. But we put a new copy up. It happened many times, taken away and replaced again by a new copy. And then we mimeographed it. I was actually very good at this. We made a lot of copies and sent them out. 

Interviewer: So it was widely circulated? 

Gong: Yes! 

Interviewer: I have actually heard someone saying that when the authorities later criticized the Li Yizhe dazibao, they printed a large number of this criticism, and also attached the full original text of "Li Yizhe" to the criticism. I heard they printed a hundred thousand copies? What did you hear about this? 

Gong: Yes, absolutely. I know about it. But this official printing was very hard to come by, you could only get it from official channels, and everybody wanted to get it. There were no copying machines at that time. But people made hand-written copies from the printed version, and we sometimes got a feed back like "you know, there is two words missing in the official version," so they had omitted two words… 

Interviewer: But when you read this dazibao, it took some time, it was not so short, maybe an hour or more… 

Gong: Yes, and I read it again and again… 

Interviewer: What else did you understand from it? It was certainly not only the "feudal fascist dictatorship"? 

Gong: Yes, but this was its main theme. I also understood what it said about the unfairness of the society, the new privileged group. Later I read Djilas [Milovan Djilas, 1911-1995, Yugoslav communist who became an opponent to Stalin and Tito. In 1957 he published (abroad) The New Class: An Analysis of the Communist System] who used the same argument, as I understand: The new privileged class who took away from people; the policies in people's name that did not actually serve the people… Basically it said this government was phony, they were phony revolutionaries. But actually they were just a bunch of people who took advantage from us and who suppressed us. So the dazibao mainly attacked the dictatorship machine and criticized the newly privileged. To summarize, it said: You guys there, you are using the people's name, you take advantage of them and suppress whoever disagrees with you. 

Interviewer: But still, it used a language that was also used by the communist power? 

Gong: Oh yes, because the language of the revolution is in essence revolutionary. You could use it also here in the US. The other day I was reading some Tea Party [conservative American political movement] document, I almost laughed! I said, do you guys know where these words come from? Same thing, when you go further back, let's say when you read Martin Luther. I am a sociologist, so I understand: Revolutionary language means that in essence you have to attack the others. It is just similar, because we humans are very limited in inventing our social system, unfortunately. 

Interviewer: At your workplace, did they call you and tell you, you should not associate with them, or did they not care? 

Gong: Oh yes, of course they told me. But I just did what I would call in modern English: I gave the finger! [laughs] I was very defiant; I was just eighteen years old, an eighteen year old kid. 

Interviewer: So what did they say? 

Gong: They said, you should not, you have to watch out what's wrong with that. But basically I kicked back on them. I don't remember exactly what I said, but it was not very nice. But my co-workers were different; I had a good relationship with them. 

Interviewer: What about your parents? 

Gong: Oh, I had big trouble, especially with my mom. They later kicked me out. I had a lousy relationship with my parents. My mom was still very communist, she was this female type who wants to follow. I sometimes wonder if they had souls, really, they just follow whatever the trendy people did, and I have always wondered, if the trendy people have souls. My father was more difficult, more complicated. But anyway, no parents would like their children to get involved in situations like that. I understand that they thought I was so unworthy. I was always considered the unworthy kid. 

Interviewer: So later on, when was it that people got arrested? 

Gong: The poster was posted twice actually, first in 1973, but it disappeared immediately, and in May 1974, at the beginning of the Anti-Lin-Biao-and-Confucius campaign. Later, I think in September or October, the provincial Party Propaganda Department began to criticize it. I think it was November, when they labeled it a "counter-revolutionary poster". But Zhao Ziyang who was party chief in Guangdong at that time, said it should not be called a "counter-revolutionary poster", one might call it a "reactionary poster" [which was much less severe, and would carry more lenient consequences]. As "counter-revolutionary" they would label people, so in that case he had carefully un-labeled the writers, he just labeled the poster. That was a way of protecting us. 

From what I later heard, he was very fond of the poster. And for the reason I heard, let me jump forward a bit: At the meeting in 1979 where we were exonerated, Xi Zhongxun [习仲勋, 1913-2002, Party Secretary and Governor of Guangdong after 1978] said - I have heard this from Xi Zhongxun directly - that he went to the Third Plenum of the Party Central Committee in December 1978 [where the big economic reforms were prepared]. There he met Zhao Ziyang [meanwhile a Politburo alternate member], and Zhao told him "When you go to Guangdong, I know you are going to Guangdong, please release Li Yizhe." So he went there, and he released the Li Yizhe Group, even before he had got permission from the Central Committee. 

Zhao did what looks nowadays like a brilliant move: He labeled the poster [instead of the authors], he said, they were young people, who made mistakes, let's have an open debate therefore. So he actually allowed all these rallies to be held, and he put Li Zhengtian there and they debated with him. Of course it became quite a road show, but a quite interesting road show. 

Interviewer: And you were there… 

Gong: Yes, of course. I was having fun. And finally the big thing was that for such rallies criticizing Li Yizhe, people had to get a ticket, and they needed to have a reason, otherwise they would say you were not allowed to go in… 

Interviewer: Where were these rallies held? 

Gong: In different schools, mostly in colleges. 

Interviewer: And Li Zhengtian was there? 

Gong: Yes, yes, they allowed him to speak, a little bit, not much, they did not allow him to make a big speech, but he could rebut accusations, so he made some rebuttals, very interesting rebuttals. He became a really big show. 

Interviewer: So how many people were present at such meetings? 

Gong: It depended. The students from schools were there, everybody would go. People enjoyed it so much going there and listening to that. It became the best show in town, very hot… 

Interviewer: And there always was a person from the party criticizing Li Yizhe? 

Gong: Yes, they got all the philosophy professor and whoever, to parade there and read their denials [of Li Yizhe's viewpoints] to denounce them. 

Interviewer: So that was at the end of 1974, in autumn 1974? 

Gong: Well, it started in autumn 1974, but it lasted until May or June 1975 when it ended. Zhao Ziyang was switched to Sichuan Province in August or July 1975, and they put Wei Guoqing [韦国清, from Oct. 1976, he was PLA General Political Department Director at the same time] as the party chief. And immediately after Wei Guoqing had taken power, he sent Li Zhengtian and Chen Yiyang to work in the [not clear] countryside, to [not clear] State Factory. That ended the whole campaign. 

Interviewer: But they were not sentenced or sent to "laojiao", to "reeducation by labor"? 

Gong: Nobody was sentenced in any way, they were not sent for "laojiao" either, just for "laodong" (manual labor), it was said. But they were arrested just after the Gang of Four had been arrested, that was in November 1976, because - taking advantage of whatever - the communist chiefs said, good, this is an opportunity to arrest, so they arrested them. 

Interviewer: It sounds a bit strange, because "Li Yizhe" were in a way criticizing the Gang of Four? 

Gong: It's not, it's not! As I said, if you look at the party machine, it is a meat grinder, the meat grinder's natural thought is: Somebody has got arrested there, so accordingly we have to arrest someone here. As they cannot arrest the party chief, they arrest someone they had wanted to arrest for a long time. 

Interviewer: But "Li Yizhe" were not in favor of the Gang of Four? 

Gong: But they could easily label someone as "Gang of Four". At that time the label they put on the Li Yizhe Group was "part of the force of the Gang of Four who tried to disturb peace in Guangdong". You could arrest anyone under such allegation. A thieve, someone who broke traffic rules… 

Interviewer: So first they were just sent to the countryside in late 1976, but then they were formally arrested? 

Gong: Yes, in November 1976. 

Interviewer: What about you? 

Gong: Well, I was informed that I should report to the authorities every day, and wait for my fate. I think it was in March, I was working in a factory, when they came and said, from now on you cannot go home. They locked me into an inventory room, and they put seven guards in front of that room. Then they said: "Now you confess your sin." I was then going to make a huge mistake, but in some way it was like fun to me. The first day there were three people from the police interrogating us. 

The first said: "You know your crime!" I said: "What crime?" He: "You attacked Chairman Mao." Me: "Yes, what's wrong with that? … [laughing] … I did, what's wrong with that?" […] I was very young then, just twenty. And you can see, I still make the same mistake very often, I am just speaking whatever is in my mind. So when they interrogated me, I just said "so what?" You must know, that could still be punished by death at that time. But that's what was in my mind. They said though: "We just consider you stupid, we may disregard it." And they just disregarded what I had said, because that did not fit their road map. 

They had a road map for the Li Yizhe Group, they were to sentence the four top guys to fifteen years in prison, but I was supposed to be the model they would rescue, somehow like that. So when I said something that obscene, I destroyed their road map. 

Interviewer: How did that go on? 

Gong: On the first day I was yelling, screaming. I had been a worker in a factory for seven years, and factory workers know to use some very unpleasant language [laughing] and language that is also funny. But they did not even know how to laugh. Several times I saw he wanted to laugh, and he had to turn away, because they did not want to be caught laughing. So they said, let you calm down, we come back. 

The next day they came back with a new strategy. They said, we just want you to tell us what has happened. "What happened?" "Yes, you just tell us details, no judgments." "So what kind of details? I did not do anything wrong." They said: "What you discussed among you." I think I confessed a lot, just what was in my mind. But we had not done anything, we had just gathered, discussed, thought what to do, what was China's future, things like that. And then they dragged me on a stage and denounced me. Seven times, I remember. They had a big slogan there, with my name on it… 

Interviewer: In the factory? 

Gong: Yes, in a big dining hall. There were a thousand people there. I was walking in, there was my name, and it said "Surrender or die!" I was looking at it… 

Interviewer: This was in early 1977? 

Gong: Yes, "surrender or die", they actually gave me three days, in solitary confinement. They said, "You think, you really rethink what you have done. You think how you want to be rescued." So three days later they came in and I said, "I have been thinking. Everybody has a lot of role models in his life. You guys, maybe you want to be Lei Feng [a selfless model soldier of the PLA praised by Mao, subject of many posthumous propaganda campaigns]. I have thought of my own life. I just want my life. That's the first thing." I think I had read from Dostoyevsky, what I told them then: "I just want to keep my live, and I don’t want anybody else's live." And they didn’t need to rescue me. I just was very pissed off. 

And then they asked me to keep writing. One day, there was a circle of about twenty interrogators, they came to ask me questions for three days, eighteen hours a day. Everybody was in charge of someone else, so when they came, they said things like: "We want to know whether it was correct what some other person has told us." I said: "Well, ok." But by the third day, the third eighteen hours' day of interrogation, I became very impatient, because they always asked the same things. So I started to speak in a high-rate bad language. Then they stopped it. 

So by that time, they must have thought that I was mentally not right. In fact I don’t think that I was anything like brave, it was just my life that had no other meaning. So I kept working in that factory, and there was the room in that factory where they had put me up. I thought, I'd better be active. So that’s what happened then. 

In February 1978, before the Chinese New Year, they released me. They had kept me for eleven months, but by 1978 things had changed dramatically. At some point already in late 1977, the interrogators had stopped coming, or they had nothing to do, they just sat there, they did not take notes, it really pissed me off. 

Then, one day, Deng Xiaoping announced that the schools will be re-opened. I had seven guards around, guarding me 24 hours, but there was one young guard, just a year older than me, who came up to me and said: "I want to take the college entry exam, but don’t understand all these books, do you?" I had only three years of education myself, but I loved reading, so I said, "I think I do. Just bring the books and switch to night-shift, I'll teach you." She then sneaked in some books, during daytime I studied them myself, and at night I taught her. 

This way I learned myself what I would have learned in high school classes, and when I came out, I took myself the college entry exam. I came in the first place in my province, and I was among the top ten in the whole country. That's how I came to study at Beida [Peking University]. 

Interviewer: Let me come back to these discussions you had when you first met Li Zhengtian, when you helped them to  put the poster up again: How were these discussions with Li Zhengtian and the others? You said, one question was, which direction China should take. So what was… 

Gong: For example, what real Marxism means. There is a lot of difference between Marxism and Leninism. We have all studied what Marx said, for example what "party" means, the "Leninist party", the "vanguard party". Why did the party divide, why did Bolsheviks and Mensheviks ["majority" and "minority"] separate? The issue was about organizing the party. Why did the Menshevik leader Plekhanov [Georgi Plekhanov, 1856-1918, a founder of the social-democratic movement in Russia and one of the first Russians to identify himself as "Marxist"] say, who wants to become a party member just has to declare himself a party member? 

I had read Hayek [Friedrich August von Hayek, 1899-1992, an Austrian and British economist and philosopher, best known for his defense of classical liberalism], I had copied Hayek, I could quote Hayek so well, Adam Smith and Hayek. What does "the invisible hand" mean? [a term describing benign market forces, coined by economist Adam Smith in 1776, later taken up by Hayek] Why does planned economy not work? What does it really mean to change planned economy? Stuff like that we discussed a lot. 

There was at that time also a Czech vice-premier, under [communist reformer Alexander] Dubček, Ota Šik, an economist, who wrote a treatise called "The Third Way" - so, can we find a "third way" [between planned economy and market economy] for China? And in the future, where do we go? 

Interviewer: His book was translated into Chinese? 

Gong: Yes! We managed to read anything we could. And Li Zhengtian brought in that essay "The Third Way". 

Interviewer: Do you remember some other books or pamphlets? 

Gong: Yes, the Russian dissidents like Medvedev [Roy and Zhores Medvedev, two brothers engaged in samizdat publications and criticizing Stalin in the 1960s], their pamphlets and letters they wrote, and Bukharin [Nikolai Bukharin, 1888-1938, Bolshevik revolutionary, executed under Stalin in 1938]. Bukharin's wife has written about Bukharin, because Bukharin was always considered by the communists such a bad figure. But that's not right! So we read about him. Yes, we read a lot, and we wrote a lot. 

Interviewer: Did you discuss about all that? And did you all have the same opinions?

Gong: Every week we got together to discuss, and we had a lot of debates. Is planned economy good or not? Does capitalism have to be total capitalism? What's good, what's bad about it? 

Interviewer: So what was the general idea that came out of these debates?

Gong: In the West, one would have said that it was leftist, but it was more like the European type of communism of that time. These were also the resources and references we had, like the Italian communists. We also read Gramsci [Antonio Gramsci, 1891- 1937, an Italian Marxist theorist and politician], and we loved it, his Germany theory [his Prison Notebooks (1929-35), where he theorized about current events in Germany], on capitalism…  We also read a little of Foucault [Michel Foucault, 1926-1984, a French philosopher, whose theories addressed the relationship between power and knowledge, and how they are used as a form of social control through societal institutions], I remember a short pamphlet by Foucault. I did not understand it much at that time, not until much later when I was at Harvard. But we did manage to read whatever we could get our hands on.

Interviewer: And Western ideas like liberties, freedom of speech, did they come in? 

Gong: Not much, but where we got some ideas from - don’t laugh! - were the footnotes, especially some footnotes in Marx' and Engels' and Lenin's and Stalin's works, particularly Marx and Engels. When Marx for example wrote about Tillier [unclear, Foucault?], the French historian and the debates around, we read his footnotes carefully to see what was there. 

Interviewer: Because you could not get hold of the books themselves?

Gong: Of course we could not get them, we could not get any of the books, all of these were illegal. But we wondered, why would they be so much criticized, like what they had said on the Napoleon era. Actually we knew French history quite well, because Marx and Engels had written a lot about it, and the Communist Party was somehow obsessed with the French Revolution. Today, this is a terribly brutal event to me, and I would have preferred much more the British way, I have to confess.

We also read novels by Victor Hugo [1802-1885, a French poet, novelist and dramatist], he wrote about the French Revolution; Balzac, who also writes a lot about history. Oh, one author we were very fond of, was John Gunther [1901-1970, an American journalist and bestseller author], the journalist who wrote the "Inside" series, "Inside Europe ", "Inside Africa", and so on, on current affairs. John Gunther was a journalist from the "Chicago Tribune", traveling around the world. His books happened to be translated into Chinese. 

Interviewer: So you could get hold of quite a few things after all, even though many things were not available? 

Gong: Well, we managed in various ways. I told you I hand-copied Hayek's book. That's how it went, you had one Hayek, and you divided it in several parts that were copies by hand and then exchanged between people. We hand-copied a lot of stuff. 

Interviewer: Would you say, the debates in your group were mainly on leftist ideas from Europe, on how to find a better "socialist" world? 

Gong: Yeah, but we did not know anything else, it was a terrible thing that the communists controlled all the resources, not just the material resources, but also the minds, yes, they controlled the minds. 

Interviewer: So in 1978 times were changing. You were released, the others were still in jail. 

Gong: Actually, the group was gradually released, and the four of them [the main authors] were released on December 30, 1978. 

Interviewer: So that was after the Third Plenum of the CCP Central Committee? 

Gong: Yes, the Plenum had taken place in mid-December, and the whole country was changing. 

Interviewer: Were you thinking of studying, or continuing activities? 

Gong: At that time I had no opportunity, I was denied any opportunity. My family thought I was hopeless. My factory thought I was hopeless. Nobody thought I had any future except for being a lousy worker in that factory, or maybe bear a few kids for some man later. But I was still thinking of the future. And for the first time I was thinking of going to school, Beida was already in my mind. I wasn’t a good student anywhere, but I had this uncontrollable confidence: "Well, I will go," so I went… 

Interviewer: Still, there was this rehabilitation meeting, were you there, what do you remember when you look back now? 

Gong: Of course I was there, because I was the subject. Actually it was very funny. The principal was the party principal, because they would rehabilitate you at the same level at which you had be denounced. The biggest rally they had organized against me, was in a big factory, so for the rehabilitation it was also a big factory. Also, when the people denounced had lost something, like money, opportunities, they would give you some compensation. I had lost for example the opportunity to rise in salary levels, so they somehow had to give me this back. 

When they had the meeting, they asked me to speak there. So I prepared to speak. I was supposed to thank the party, thank everybody. But I just said, "Oh, it has ended, great, so let's just end it." And I just left. They were not happy. But, what the hell, I said: "what else do you want me to speak? It's finished. Stop!" They said "You should just thank the party." I said: "Hey, you jailed me, thank you, no way!" I have always been bad, you can see how bad I was. I did not thank anyone, I only said bye-bye, let's finish it. People were waiting that I would give a speech, but I didn’t, I just let them speak themselves. I don’t even know what they said, I was reading.

Interviewer: There was also this meeting with Xi Zhongxun [习仲勋, 1913-2002, jailed by his own Communist Party in the 1930s and again during the Cultural Revolution; 1978, after his rehabilitation, party secretary and governor of Guangdong Province], how was that? 

Gong: I have to say it was moving. I was never much a fan of party leaders, but I have to say it was a [unclear, but positive]. Xi had already met with Li Zhengtian before, who told us that he would also meet with us [the other members of the extended group]. I think it was in the afternoon, there were about twenty of us who went. Xi Zhongxun and Wu Nansheng [吴南生, Guangdong Standing Committee Member], his number two, were there. In the party building, they checked things for a couple of hours, then he allowed everybody to speak, about our experiences and so on, and then he asked us, what we wanted to do in the future. I just said, I wanted to go to college. And I don’t want anything of this to be on my [personal] record, and I don’t want anyone to stop me going to college. He just instructed his secretary and said: "Make sure it doesn't happen!" Very short. 

There were many people who were complaining that they had been persecuted in one way or another. I remember, it was a long table, I was sitting at one end, he wasn’t sitting in the middle, but a little off. He was wearing a white shirt, he stood up, his face had an expression of tolerance. He sighed and said: “Well, let's not complain so much. I was in jail for sixteen years, five of them I was in shackles." Xi Zhongxun in shackles? I still remember that moment, when I just thought he was a great man. What makes his son [Xi Jinping, now Party Chairman and State President ] do some of the things he is doing, I don’t know. But he was a great man. 

Interviewer: Did this subject of your participation in the Li Yizhe movement come up later when you applied to go to university? 

Gong: Actually a little bit, they sort of delayed my admission notice for a couple of days. I was really pissed off, but I got my admission, I had an undisputable record. 

Interviewer: But nobody talked to you about it? 

Gong: No, nobody said anything. 

Interviewer: Do you have the feeling that political records for a person were not so important any more at that time? 

Gong: At that time the [Li Yizhe] group were considered heroes! It was a different time, so being considered a hero, could only be positive. 

Interviewer: In 1979 you came to Beida… 

Gong: … and studied history. 

Interviewer: This was also a time of political movements, the Democracy Wall… 

Gong: Yes, I was very active then! That was a funny story. In 1979 when we were rehabilitated, we got a congratulation letter and a telegram from a group called "Beijing Spring", headed by Wang Juntao, Chen Ziming, Han Cixiong [?] and all those people. So before I went to school [to Beijing], I think it was Li Zhengtian who wrote them a note saying, "one of our comrades will go to study at Beida, tell us how she can connect with your comrades when she arrives." So they answered in a return letter: "When your comrade comes to Beida, please come to Beijing Daxue, sanshijiu lou yilingwu, Wang Juntao tongzhi - building 39, room 105, comrade Wang Juntao." So Wang Juntao, comrade Wang, was the first one I met in Beijing! 

Interviewer: What did he say to you? 

Gong: We just became friends, I realized that he was two years younger than me, he became a younger brother then. So we became friends, and I met a lot of people through him. Wei Jingsheng was already in jail. But I met many others, like Xi Wenli and the like. I participated in many meetings, we had lots of meeting at Beida, lots of discussions, you know, we were in our twenties, Beida had 7000 students at that time, and everybody was thinking he will become the Master of the Universe, and they behaved like masters of the universe! 

We had all sorts of participants in the meetings including Li Keqiang [李克强, prime minister after 2013], I knew him very well at that time, and Bo Xilai [薄熙来, later member of the CCP Politbureau, mayor and party secretary of Chongqing, deposed and sentence to life because of corruption in September 2013] was in my department, and Bo Xiaoying, his sister, lived next door to me for six years. So we always discussed the Master of Universe theme: What will be the future, how can we change China when we become this or that… But for myself, I loved reading and I loved studying, so I rather did a lot of reading instead of social activities. But I knew all these people. 

Interviewer: Did you go the Democracy Wall? 

Gong: Of course! 

Interviewer: What impression did you get there? 

Gong: Honestly, a lot of people went to the Democracy Wall to talk about their cases, I only go there at weekends and so, but the Beijing democracy movement is different from what I had experienced in Guangdong. There were too many offsprings of high-ranking officials. The way they behaved, the way they were thinking, always showed that they believed to be from a privileged group. 

Because the first time when they welcomed me, they took me out, riding on buses, we had a lot of fun. But I had one question that always stuck in my mind. I said: "Beijing is cold, so in winter time, how do you cope with it?" The answer was, from a famous person, I do not name him, "you know, in Beijing we have heating, and the heat is supplied to us according to your rank. So in my home, I don’t even need to wear a sweater." That really pissed me off. Even though I came from a what one called a high-ranking intellectual family, I really considered myself that my roots were working class. I had worked in factories many years, and I identified myself with ordinary people a lot more. 

Interviewer: So did you start keeping distance with these people? 

Gong: I started keeping distance. I did host meetings though, every Saturday we had a saloon-type meeting in my dorm, we had big discussions before the elections in 1979… 

Interviewer: Not 1980? 

Gong: Yes, but the planning started in autumn 1979, that was called the "Xiangshan Huiyi" [香山会议 Xiangshan Meeting, in the hills in north-western Beijing]. I was there, with people from different universities. That meeting was organized by Huang Tongxu [?], Lei Zhengxiao [?] - I am not sure you know them. Anyway they were talking about next year's election, how to participate, and they asked me also. I said: "Well, I have just come out of jail, not long ago, and I don’t want to go in again, until I feel that I have well studied."

Interviewer: So when these elections approached, did you ever consider - that time or later in 1980 - taking part? Or were asked? 

Gong: Well, I did not. Off the record a little bit, at that time I think it was juvenile, not everybody was, but lots of them were. We were not much older than juveniles. I had experienced something very serious, it was at that time that I started to doubt the whole communist system and theory, and I felt that I was not equipped to understand the world better, and I rather wanted to study more. 

Interviewer: Does it also mean that in your impression they had a very reformist approach, they just wanted to make the existing system a bit better, while you already thought that it should be completely changed? 

Gong: I started to doubt the entire system, let me put it this way, as a chapter of human history. I think it was a total waste of human history. Something very miserable had happened to us, that should not have, but it did. And also I thought that we did not really understand what democracy was. You can jump in protest, you can have a few slogans, but what is democracy? Honestly I don’t like majority rule, I think it's stupid, but it's the only way if you want to have a relatively fair society. So I started to read, Aristotle and other things that were available for me, that's how I became a lot more libertarian [individualist political philosophy, emphasizing the values of freedom of choice, free markets, etc.]. 

Interviewer: Did this election campaign make sense to you? 

Gong: What those people did, yes, absolutely. People should participate, they should fight for it. But their way of fighting did not make much sense to me. As for me, I did not really know yet what I really wanted at this stage. Later when I participated here [in the US], I did know what I wanted and what I was against… 

Interviewer: But were you going to the meetings? 

Gong: Yes, to a lots of meetings, because I was curious. 

Interviewer: Whom did you like best at that time? 

Gong: Zhang Wei [张炜, candidate of the official student union, arriving in third place in the election], he was so thoughtful. 

Interviewer: Did you vote for him? 

Gong: Yes, intellectually I admired him. He was said to be more pro-government, but I did not think so. At that time, even though I was anti-communist, and I am very anti-communist still, I was pro-reform. [Wang] Juntao seemed the more juvenile type to me. He still was a kid, you can't believe how much a kid he was… 

Interviewer: What about Zhang Manling? [张曼菱, a woman candidate advocating classical "female" roles] 

Gong: She was stupid beyond my imagination at that time. Was that a political statement what she said? She did not know anything about politics, she just wanted a show. She was a show woman, she loved to have a show. But I cannot blame her for that, it’s the same with a lot of our [American] politicians… You know the saying: "Hollywood is Washington for stupid people, Washington is Hollywood for ugly people." - a political stage full of ugly people who want to make a show. Isn't that true? It's so true. I prefer people with ideas; that is why I respected Hu Ping and Zhang Wei, these two were people with a purpose, objective, and with ideals. If you want to be a leader, you have to have a purpose for what you are doing. 

Interviewer: So when Hu Ping got elected, what did you think at that time? 

Gong: Hu Ping is a thinker. He is a very deep thinker. And he has a very realistic mind. His mind can see things right down to the point how we are formed. And not all this communist bullshit… Hu Ping is someone who can get whatever complicated theory right down to the point. This is a talent, very few people can do that. But Hu Ping was frustrated. When I asked him once about a meeting, he said, well, that was a kindergarten. This was not very flattering… 

Interviewer: A last question: As the head of the Chinese Language Service of the Voice of America, you also observe very much the Chinese Democracy Movement in exile, people who have come out from China, sometimes after many years in prison. How do you see their situation? 

Gong: Well this is a very sad story. So many people hang on to their past, and they fight among themselves. Some of them I do admire a lot. They were very defiant in China, but when they came out from China, they should have been prepared that they were nobodies, that they had to start from scratch again. America is the great country that could give them the opportunities to start from scratch again. And if you are so pro-democracy, this is a democratic country, and you should learn from it. Come here and be a citizen, learn how to be a citizen. 

It took me a long time to learn how to be a citizen. I have been in this country for 27 years, but not until I launched my own campaign [for a seat in the Virginia State Assembly], I understood how much effort you have to put in to be a citizen. This is a citizens' country. But sadly, most of them [the Chinese democracy activists in exile] haven't done this, and they didn’t have the curiosity, the mindset to learn, and that pisses me off.

But why is that? I think, because when you are somebody, and it is not just the dissidents, when you were in China and you were somebody, it's very hard to accept to be a nobody. So when you hang out here to be somebody, it will only be with people who know you, and that circle is getting smaller. 

Interviewer: So how big, how strong is this movement now, and how disunited is it? I am not daring to say "how united".

Gong: It's not only disunited, it is disorientated. What should they do? If, I am not saying it will happen, but if there was an opportunity, a revolutionary situation in China, what role would they play? Can they play a role at all? And what have they got to offer to the Chinese people? Offer them theory? Offer them a method? 

Well, as an American, I think, I would offer to the Chinese… You know, I wrote a book a few years ago, after my campaign, it's called "Living Democracy", it is a bestseller in China, I am very happy! I wrote this as a textbook type of book, if you want democracy, step by step, you do this, you do that, what books to read, in what way talk to people, lots of ways to explain our system. That’s what I have to offer. 

Interviewer: Ok, that’s you. But you have all these people who have come out from China over the last years, the first group who has been in prison, like Xu Wenli, Wei Jingsheng who came out in the nineties… 

Gong: If I were Wei Jingsheng - Wei knows this, because he likes my cooking, so I cook for him sometimes, we are friends - but I've got to criticize him. So if I were Wei Jingsheng, the first thing after landing here, would have been to take English lessons. I would go to learn English, and if I were him, I would even say I have to learn a trade. Whatever you do, it doesn’t matter. He is a good shooter, so he would be ok as a shooting instructor. Learn a trade, do something, earn your living, and speak up for your cause,  just do that! It's simple, you cannot just say, I am so and so, you guys have to feed me. 

Interviewer: When all these people arrived at the beginning, they received a lot of money from various sources, from American foundations, from Taiwan. This money has become less, I suppose? 

Gong: Much less, it has dried up. I handled some of this money myself, I worked for AFL-CIO [the largest federation of trade unions in the US] for three years and I handled their China program, so I know in details about a lot of that money, because I gave it away. 

Interviewer: So what were the consequences of the funds drying up, what did it do to the movement? 

Gong: Because so many people are clinging to it, relying on it, so when the money dried up, that caused more infighting. You have to fight now to get whatever you can get. It's very sad. 

Interviewer: At the beginning, many American politicians, congressmen, senators, even the president, met some of these dissidents. Are they still willing to meet them? 

Gong: Only a few, as a symbolic gesture. It's very simple, what do you have to offer to the Americans except for a few slogans? And it's only once a year, on June 4, you have a face? There has to be reciprocity. You have to offer Americans something, like understanding, analysis, just something you feel that you are good at. You cannot just say, I am so and so, give me money. That’s a parasite mentality! I am libertarian again: We don’t want to be looters or parasites. 

Interviewer: Do you think, inside China there is a new group of dissidents, people challenging the Communist Party and the government? 

Gong: Yes, the party breeds them every day, because it is so corrupt… 

Interviewer: This new generation of people in opposition, of a civil society in China, how does it, in your observation, compare to these movements way back? 

Gong: It is a spectrum, and now there is more maneuvering room in China, for NGOs, an environmental movement, for lawyers. China is now modernizing. If you look how lawyers are now operating, even if it cannot compare with our legal system, they operate now in a framework, a mental framework and a framework of a reality of rule of law. And they have so much more understanding of how a modern country should operate. I am actually quite hopeful looking at China, and it is those people who are the future, not the people overseas. 

Interviewer: You are occasionally going back to China, I suppose, for example with VOA delegations… 

Gong: Occasionally, yes. 

Interviewer: I guess they know who you are, so what do Chinese politicians, people from inside the system, say to you now about "Li Yizhe" or the Democracy Wall Movement? 

Gong: First of all, it's difficult for me to get a visa, sometimes I have to wait for months, and when I get one, it gives an exact date of entrance and an exact date when I have to leave the country. So I am controlled, and when I arrive at the airport, I have to wait for a state security agent to pick me up. That’s how things are. But I hadn’t been able to go in for seventeen years, only when I was with AFL-CIO, and they sent me, I could go back. 

Interviewer: Why did they not let you in, was it because your affiliation with the movement at that time? 

Gong: Nobody has explained it to me, no one, I was just denied it. That’s something sinister… 

Interviewer: But did somebody sometimes mention: "Oh, I remember Li Yizhe…" 

Gong: Oh, they all read about me, and anyone who was fifty, sixty years old, knew about it, lots of people. But for most of them, it's way beyond people's time. I always say, you are lucky to get a footnote in history, and even then it will just be a footnote. But to me it was great event at that time. Last time I went to China, I met Chen Yiyang [a main author of the Li Yizhe Group]. It was a sort of nostalgia feeling. And I said, well we are kind of lucky, that we are getting a footnote. If you think of wars where millions of people die, still they are only a footnote. So for me it's a footnote in history, I don’t hang on it.


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