From the Stones Beneath the Sea

By Charlotte Bruce Harvey '78 / November / December 2003
June 21st, 2007
The plate-glass window in Xu Wenli’s office at the Watson Institute for International Studies faces west, angling out toward the treetops and sky beyond. It seems an apt setting for Xu, who spent sixteen years and seventy-two days in Chinese prisons for the treasonous habit of looking west. At the time of his release last December, Xu was one of thousands of Chinese political prisoners thought to be held unjustly—in his case for promoting democracy.

Since his release to the United States on medical parole and his arrival in Providence, his goals have been basic: recovering his health (he contracted hepatitis B in prison), learning English, and writing. There’s an odd circularity to the latter: as a young man, Xu longed to be-come a writer, but that early ambition was soon replaced by the demands of his country. He served in the Chinese military and worked as an electrician before becoming involved in the labor movement out of frustration with corruption. Similarly, it was his disillusionment with Marxism under Mao Zedong’s dictatorship that drew Xu to China’s Democracy Wall movement in the late 1970s.

During a brief window of openness toward political dissent, Xu joined the activists who congregated at a high wall near Beijing’s Tiananmen Square, where they hung political posters and distributed crudely printed samizdat-style magazines, including the April 5 Forum, which Xu published himself and named after the April 5, 1976, protests that followed the death of the moderate premier Zhou Enlai. By 1984, however, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) had begun to crack down on the Democracy Wall movement, and after Xu published an account of a fellow activist’s arrest and sham trial, he was arrested and sentenced to fifteen years in prison for treason. He served twelve years before being released “for good behavior” in 1993, when Beijing, looking to persuade the world it deserved to host the 2000 Olympics, was responding to international pressure to improve its human-rights record.

Over the next four years, Xu continued his political work while making sure to notify his police watchers of his activities: where he was going, whom he was meeting, what they were doing. It was during this time that he met Robert Bernstein, the former head of Random House and the founding director of Human Rights Watch, who was instrumental in obtaining the release of other Chinese dissidents. Then, in 1998, Xu was arrested again for founding the China Democracy Party (CDP) in opposition to the CCP. After a trial that lasted just three hours, Xu was convicted of endangering state security and sentenced to thirteen more years in prison. A dozen other CDP members received similar terms.

Worried that Xu would die in jail, his wife, He Zintong, held a well-publicized and politically embarrassing hunger strike on the eve of the June 4 Tiananmen Square anniversary in 2002. Their daughter, Jin Xu, who in the mid-1990s had moved to the United States to attend college, lobbied politicians and wrote the editors of prominent newspapers on her father’s behalf. Xu’s autobiography, I Shed My Blood to Color My Country, was published in Chinese in 2001 and circulated in the United States, Taiwan, and Hong Kong. With Bernstein’s help, Xu’s case became a top priority at the U.S. embassy in China and at the U.S. state department. International rights organizations called for his release, among them Human Rights Watch and PEN, the writers’ group. Amnesty International even printed a poster with Xu’s photograph over the slogan “Got Democracy?”—parodying the dairy industry’s ubiquitous Got Milk? campaign.

On December 24, 2002, China announced it was releasing Xu to the United States on “medical parole,” a euphemism for political exile.

THESE DAYS XU has found a refuge at Brown, where in an interview last March he demonstrated the irrepressible sense of humor and delight in irony that persist despite his decade and a half of forced confinement. Speaking through a translator—Assistant Professor of Asian Studies Laura Hess—Xu explained that keeping his spirits up had been his biggest challenge in prison. After he’d smuggled out and published a prison diary during his first term, he was moved from mere solitary confinement to a smaller cell—“three square meters,” he says—where he remained for four years. Xu clearly relished the absurd lengths to which his jailers went to monitor his every move. At one point, he says, Chinese papers reported that 200 surveillance cameras had been installed at strategic locations around Beijing. Eight of those cameras were trained solely on Xu. One day when he accidentally slipped in the shower in view of a security camera, guards came running to make sure he was okay. Telling this story, Xu laughed gleefully, his wide, gappy smile revealing the twenty-some teeth he lost through malnutrition and lack of dental care while in prison.

Although Xu was isolated from other prisoners, he was allowed to read newspapers, and he grew hopeful last December when he read that U.S. diplomats would be traveling to Beijing to discuss human rights with Chinese government officials. On one of her monthly visits—which were closely monitored—He Zintong commented that she’d been doing lots of laundry lately. “See my hands,” she said, holding up her palms to the glass that separated them. On one she’d drawn the number 12; on the other, 16. “My clever wife,” Xu said. “I knew that would be the date of the meeting.”

On December 18 Chinese officials asked Xu to fill out an application for medical parole in the United States. It wasn’t the first time they’d asked, but he’d refused previous offers, not wanting to abandon his homeland. However, his health had deteriorated dangerously, and this time he suspected he had some leverage: “If I did not actually get on the plane,” he says, “it would have been a huge problem for China.” So he told the officials he would leave on one condition: if his wife went with him.

Xu’s release was announced in the Chinese papers the next day, and on December 24 a police car delivered him to the tarmac beneath a waiting commercial jet. An official shook Xu’s hand, welcomed him to the United States, and then told him, “Your wife is on the plane.” On board the two talked nonstop, Xu says, and when they landed in Chicago, Jin Xu, who had been nine at the time of her father’s first arrest, met them at the airport. They had not been together as a family in twenty years.

WHILE THE CHINESE government sees in Xu a traitor, his supporters in China and the West cast him as an outsize hero. It’s an incongruous role for Xu, a slight man more given to speaking in metaphor than strident rhetoric. He still bristles when asked about his role in the democracy movement. “I cannot abide being called the Father of Democracy,” he says emphatically. “We are part of a continuum. The idea that democracy can and should be established in China has long roots. For more than 100 years Chinese intellectuals have worked for this nonstop.”

Xu traces the roots of the Chinese democracy movement to the mid-nineteenth century Qing dynasty, when a generation of Chinese intellectuals became exposed to Western political ideas through books introduced by missionaries and through the writings of Chinese who had traveled abroad. When Sun Yat Sen orchestrated the overthrow of the Qing dynasty, he envisioned for China a political system that would be at once nationalistic, socialistic, and democratic—and that has yet to be realized. “So,” Xu says, “I’m actually part of a thread, a tradition.”

Xu grew up in southern China—Anhui province—where his father was a doctor, “a military doctor,” Xu says, “head of the hospital.” Family portraits of the time show Xu as a boy, nattily dressed in western clothes. “But after the CCP took over in the fifties,” he says, “everyone began to wear Mao jackets.” A portrait from that era shows Xu as a young member of the proletariat. “I wore that every day,” he says. “I had no money to go out and buy another jacket.”

Why is it, Xu wonders aloud, that Sun Yat Sen’s revolution failed to produce a democracy? “Is it because Chinese people don’t want it?” he asks. “Don’t like it? Or is it that Chinese people are stupid? I don’t think so. No, definitely not. The problem is that a democratic society requires certain conditions.” One of them, Xu explains, is the protection of individual rights. Another is the protection of “personal property obtained through honest labor,” a concept he says President Ronald Reagan introduced him to. “This phrase honest work had a very big impact on me.”

Democracy, Xu concludes, is more than a political system. It’s a way of life. “If you impose on the rights of others, you apologize,” he says. In the United States, he observes, people yield ground all the time, obeying traffic signs, for instance, “but when it comes to individual rights, personal rights, people will not yield.” Even translators, he observes ruefully, “have the right to disagree.” Sometimes after translating his remarks, his student translators feel at liberty to voice their own disagreement.

“In China,” Xu says, “there is a saying that ‘all things under heaven belong to the emperor.’ This kind of thinking supports the establishment of an authoritarian despot.” After taking power, Mao divided up the land among the peasants, but he soon reclaimed it, Xu notes: “Why? So he could give it back. If he gave this peasant a little earth, the peasant will say, ‘Oh, thank you, Chairman Mao. Thank you CCP. Thank you socialism.’ This created the material conditions for an authoritarian society.”

Although China’s constitution guarantees free speech and other basic rights, its citizens are accustomed to living in a police state. Xu believes his homeland has a long way to go before it will be ready for democracy. “It’s not impossible,” he says, “that there will be some kind of political crisis—a governmental upheaval can happen—and that the CCP’s sole grasp on power will be threatened, but it not so simple that we will suddenly say, ‘Oh, let’s have a democratic society.’ Even if we establish democracy, it wouldn’t be a stable democracy. It takes time.”

BY THIS FALL, Xu’s health was steadily improving. He was brewing a fresh pot of oolong tea when I arrived at his office one afternoon, and while we waited for Jin Xu, who’d agreed to translate for us, I complimented him on his appearance and his new teeth. He has lost weight, Jin pointed out after she’d arrived, but part of that is because he’s less bloated than he was a year ago; his new oxford-cloth shirts and chinos hang loosely on his frame.

Jin has joined her parents in an apartment behind the Watson Institute, trying to reestablish a personal relationship with Xu after all those years apart. “I don’t know my father,” she says matter-of-factly. She teaches studio art at Moses Brown School in Providence, and it is her presence in the city that prompted Xu to accept Brown’s fellowship rather than one of the others he’d been offered.

“Last summer I sent my parents to summer school to learn English—at Harvard,” Jin says. “Payback time!” She has her father’s quick, wide smile and easy laugh. Her parents attend English class every morning, but Jin notes disapprovingly that they speak Chinese together, which slows their progress.

Mindful of the need to earn his keep “through honest labor,” and determined to further the cause of democracy in China, whatever the distance, Xu keeps busy with several writing projects. One is a memoir he and He Zintong are writing together, relating the story of his imprisonment from each of their perspectives. Another project is more philosophical and has to do with Chinese texts and democracy. Xu also hopes to teach a Chinese-language course on the Democracy Wall movement and the China Democracy Party.

A more ambitious goal is to launch a bilingual journal on democracy. That, according to Watson Institute director Thomas Biersteker, will take considerable money, and before that can be raised Biersteker needs to find permanent support for Xu’s fellowship, which is secure only through June. Anxious about his financial instability, Xu contemplates earning a living by teaching Chinese or calligraphy. Thus far the funds for his salary and expenses have been raised privately, largely by Robert Bernstein. (Although he turned the leadership of Human Rights Watch over to Ken Roth ’78, Bernstein remains on its board.)

Increasingly, Xu participates in Watson Institute events. Last year he joined two other prominent human rights experts—Jiri Dienstbier, a Czech journalist who was imprisoned along with Václav Havel before becoming Czech minister for foreign affairs, and Paolo Sergio Pinheiro, the former Brazilian secretary for human rights who is now the U.N.’s assistant to the secretary-general for the rights of children—at an on-campus conference on the effectiveness of external monitoring of human rights abuses.

“Another thing Xu wanted to do last year,” Biersteker says, “is to organize a major conference on Sino-American relations. He is very well connected in Washington. I mean, I’ve interacted with Condi Rice as academics, but I couldn’t just walk in [to her office]! He has that kind of access. I had to tell him we didn’t have the money to invite all these people.”

One of Xu’s student translators last year was Yaniv Gelnik ’03, an Israeli concentrating in international relations and Asian studies. He traveled with Xu to Washington, D.C., to translate during meetings with various Senate subcommittees, including a thank-you visit to foreign relations committee members who were instrumental in obtaining his release. Describing the experience, Gelnik could barely contain himself: “I mean, here were all these senators and me, a bumbling Brown student!” He shook his head; then he changed the subject abruptly. “We’re trying to find a job for Xu’s wife. She really doesn’t speak any English. Do you have any ideas?”

“It’s amazing the degree to which Xu was adopted by the undergraduate community,” Biersteker reflects. “Not only his official translators, but other undergraduates and graduate students took on the cause of acclimating him to the campus. Before I knew it, I heard he’d been out Rollerblading—just months after his release. He’s an extraordinary individual. It’s the triumph of the human spirit. Given what he has suffered, it really is.”

WHEN XU WENLI TALKS, he tends to tell stories that reveal themselves over time to be extended metaphors—not unlike poems, really. Last spring he was describing the economic and political conditions necessary for democracy, when he veered off for a moment to talk about Ground Zero. He said he went there shortly after his arrival in the United States to see if terrorists really had flattened the island of Manhattan, as Chinese papers had reported and many of his countrymen seemed to believe. Those reports were wrong, of course, which he quickly saw: “Not even fifty meters from the site, tall skyscrapers still stand.” The foundations of those buildings reach deep, Xu observed, “to the stones beneath the sea.”

Xu finds in this image a lesson for China. “You need a foundation for the establishment of a democratic society,” he says, and that requires time: “Step by step. ... Only then can you have the tall skyscrapers like you have in New York.”

Charlotte Bruce Harvey is the BAM’s managing editor.
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