Foreign Affairs

NZ expert helps professor fight Chinese state

A China expert living in Wairarapa is helping one of China's most outspoken academics take his fight to the man. Laura Walters reports

New Zealand-based China expert Geremie Barmé is supporting one of China’s most outspoken professors in his fight against the Chinese state.

Chinese academic Xu Zhangrun is suing Chinese police, after he was arrested and detained in what’s being described as the latest sign of the Chinese Communist Party’s clampdown on academic freedom, and freedom of speech.

Xu is a prominent Chinese constitutional law scholar at the prestigious Tsinghua University, but he has faced pressure from his university, and the state, for his defence of academic freedom over the past three years.

Last year, in response to his public criticism of Xi Jinping's leadership, Xu was sanctioned and had his pay docked. 

Following the publication of one of his essays in March 2019, which criticised Xi Jinping’s concentration of power and crackdown on dissent, he was suspended and put under investigation.

And last month he was fired after police took him from his Beijing home, and detained him for a week on charges of “soliciting prostitution”.

As well as losing his job, he was stripped of his professional status as a professor; his pension was taken away; and his health coverage was withdrawn.

Xu told friends he believed it was a “trial run”, and he expected the state’s next move against him could be more final.

Now the outspoken critic has hired lawyers to sue the Qingyang district public security bureau in Chengdu.

This rare act of public defiance comes as Xi's administration continues to ramp up its campaign to stamp out criticism and defiance across China. 

Academics and media in China and Hong Kong are under intense pressure to toe the line, and not criticise Xi’s rule.

But in response to his firing, Xu said he had no plans to stop.

In 2018, shortly after Xi abolished term limits, effectively allowing him to rule for life, Xu began writing his critiques.

Xu has repeatedly warned that censorship and enforced silence was having disastrous consequences for China, and by extension for the world.

In February, he criticised Xi’s handling of the Covid-19 pandemic, and the state's control of communication channels in what he described as China’s 1984-style technological surveillance.

He said there was an evolving form of military tyranny, underpinned by the ideology he called ‘legalistic-fascist-stalinism’.

Some have questioned why Xu, and other elite intellectuals, are risking their privileges and security in order to speak truth to absolute power.

“As long as I draw breath, I will continue to speak out. This is incumbent upon me and it is my fate.”

However, many are also supporting Xu.

New Zealand-based sinologist Geremie Barmé has been a supporter of the professor’s work, and over the past few years, Barmé has translated Xu’s essay’s into English.

Since the start of last year, Barmé has also been documenting the showdown between the academic and his university.

He describes Xu as “a courageously outspoken academic”.

In his publication China Heritage, Barmé said Xu “pointedly confronts the sorry state of intellectual freedom in China today”.

Last year, the Wairarapa-based China expert penned an open letter to Tsinghua University’s president and the university’s Communist Party secretary, saying the institution had suffered severe damage to its academic reputation as a consequence of punishing Xu.

The letter urged the university to restore Xu’s normal status, and refrain from any further sanctions against him.

It gathered more than 270 signatures from academics at Tsinghua University, and a further 325 from various institutions in China and around the world.

Barmé has also documented the most recent turn of events, including Tsinghua’s decision to fire the professor, along with a translation of Xu’s response to the support and offers of money from those who believe in his cause.

“The political system remains recalcitrant, refusing to change; now the whole world is on guard. Imperial hauteur has turned China into a boastful orphan."

In the response, Xu said he was honoured by the support, but would not accept the money. He urged the donors to give the funds to those who truly needed it.

“The political system remains recalcitrant, refusing to change; now the whole world is on guard. Imperial hauteur has turned China into a boastful orphan. There is no doubt in my mind that totalitarianism such as this will come to no good end and that true freedom will finally visit our land,” he said.

“As long as I draw breath, I will continue to speak out. This is incumbent upon me and it is my fate.”

Earlier this month, Barmé told the Financial Times this case was consistent with Xu’s life-long work of trying to hold China’s leaders accountable for “extrajudicial acts that betray the transformation of China into becoming a modern constitutional nation”.

The significance of Xu’s acts of defiance came from his unique blend of “an ancient tradition of principled protest, with being a modern reformer and constitutional activist”, Barmé told FT.

“There is this tradition of principled outrage in China that you cannot kill.”

In his recent writings on China Heritage, Barmé said Xu’s situation reflected the broader fate of intellectual and political life in China today. 

“The ‘Xu Zhangrun Incident’, as some call it, is not merely about intellectual and academic freedom. Rather, it reflects the Xi-generated crisis in China’s ability to think about, debate and formulate ideas free of Communist Party manipulation, ideas that rightfully could and should benefit Chinese society, the nation and the world as a whole.”

The publisher of Hong Kong pro-democracy tabloid Apple Daily has been arrested and charged under Beijing's new sedition laws, in another example of the Chinese Communist Party's crackdown on free speech. Photo: Getty Images

While Xu’s criticisms and latest act of defiance are rare, he is part of a small but vocal group of elites who continue to criticise Xi’s regime from inside.

Last week, police in Hong Kong arrested Jimmy Lai, the founder of Hong Kong tabloid Apple Daily.

He was charged with collusion with a foreign country - one of the vaguely defined crimes under the new anti-sedition law

This was another signal China intends to use the sweeping new law to stifle free speech, and undermine Hong Kong’s pro-democracy movement.

In May, Lai told the New York Times he knew this was coming, as the Chinese Communist Party grew tired of Hong Kong’s free press and its free people.

And now Cai Xia, a former professor at China’s elite Central Party School, has spoken out against Xi, after being expelled from the party.

She was thrown out after an audio recording of her describing Xi as a “mafia boss” was leaked online. 

And since then, The Guardian has published an interview conducted with Cai in June, in which she discussed what she considered to be Xi’s mistakes as a leader, and why she believed a democratic transition would take place one day. 

She originally asked for the comments not to be published because of threats to her and her family, but she said she was now free to speak.

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