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To Obama Why China Does Not Have a

Nelson Mandela

US President Barack Obama and Chinese President Xi Jinping

On the day of Mandelas funeral, I turned on the

television for once. President Obama was speaking. There are too many
leaders who claim solidarity with Madibas struggle for freedom, but do not
tolerate dissent from their own people. And there are too many of us on the
sidelines, comfortable in complacency or cynicism when our voices must be
heard. All of a sudden, our president looked to me like an actorsaying
the most beautiful words on an occasion that demanded no courage or
leadership. I jumped up and turned the television off.
by Yaxue Cao
( September 24, 2015, New York City, Sri Lanka Guardian) On March
31, when Chinas youngest political criminal Huang Wenxun () heard

that Xi Jinping was going to visit America, he wrote President Obama a

letter. He had just turned 25, and had been held in a police lockup awaiting
trial in Chibi, Hubei Province, for one year and ten months (as of this
writing, its over two years and four months). In his letter, he told his own
story and also tried to get Americans to learn about a different China. He
seemed to truly believe his letter would make it in front of President
Obama, and apologized for occupying the presidents precious time. But he
reasoned: this could be counted as a time for international moral
responsibility, and so wasnt a waste.

Huang Wenxun in Shenzhen, March 10, 2013.

The letter has been on my mind for months, because its my job to bring
the voice of Huang Wenxun and those like him to the world. But his letter
was too long, so I decided to transmit the essentials. Then I thought I would
also include the accounts of two other political criminals: Tang Jingling (
) and Guo Feixiong ().
Im under no illusions that President Obama will read this letter, even

though I sit just four miles from the White House as I write. To Obama is
just the title of this essay.
Huang Wenxun grew up on the coast of southernmost China, in the city of
Huizhou, Guangdong Province. During senior high school (around 2008) he
and his schoolmates wrote down their aspirations in life. Huangs was
grand: to establish a democratic China. He launched a student club
dedicated to drawing Manga comics that made light of contemporary
politics. But soon before graduation he dropped out of school: I could no
longer stand that wretched socialist-communist political education.
Ive read his letter several times, and I became conflicted every time I get
to this part. One half of me reproached him: why didnt you go to college?
(Im old enough to be his mother, so my reproval is that of a parent.) The
other half of me understands deeply his torment, having been forced to
mechanically memorize answers for political class examinations. I scored
very high marks on the political portion when I took the national college
entrance exam, but failed it badly when I took exams for graduate school
the revulsion I felt was such that swallowing flies would be a more pleasant
experience than memorizing the Partys brain-dead dogma.
In 1990 when Huang Wenxun was born, China was still cloaked in the
deathly stillness that followed the bloody massacre of students on the
streets of Beijing in 1989. That enforced silence has since clung to the air in
China, noticeable to anyone in the least bit sensitive. But having spent a
couple of years in Guangzhou, this post-1989 young adult came to the firm
belief that street activism was his mission in life. There need to be people
constantly taking to the streets, making more and more Chinese people
aware of their rights and civic consciousness. A public that refuses to
slumber anymore is the ultimate force for toppling a dictatorship.
Indeed, a phrase has been circulated for years among Chinas opposition
circles: A thousand complaints and cries does less than standing on the
street once.
But this young man gave me a scare. On March 10, 2013, during the
Communist Partys annual Two Sessions (), Huang Wenxun took to the
street in Shenzhen, holding an enormous placard overhead.
Have no fear!
Overthrow the Communist Party!
Topple the dictatorship!
Long live democracy, freedom, constitutionalism, human rights,

and equality!
The year prior he and his friends staged a similar event in Guangzhou,
though the message that time was considerably milder: No vote, no
future. Every time he did this he would be detained for a short period. He
once also handed out flyers on the street, making extemporaneous
speeches about voting rights, democracy, and the disclosure of officials
private assets. In May 2013 he was in Chibi, Hebei Province with a few
friends when he was arrested. He had by then visited ten cities and seen
and made many friends.
He said his fear didnt recede despite doing more activities. But every time
the police came to get him, hed shout what he wanted to say, enjoying an
authentic feeling from the depth of my soul.

Huang Wenxun ()

On the day he was arrested and thrown into the detention center in Chibi,
he was repeatedly shocked with high-voltage electric batons by police
simply because he kept questioning the legality of their procedures. That
night he saw police officers beating a few female prisoners outside the
fence, and yelled at them to stop. So the police came in and gave him
another round of electrocution.
He told President Obama about life in the detention center: He was moved
between two cells, the bigger one of the two is about 66 meters; the open

space where he gets fresh air is about 44 meters. Inside the four high
walls, I could see the sky through metal bars. Detainees were made to
work over 10 hours a day, and in his prison, they make paper money used
for worshiping the dead. In other prisons, he reported what he had heard,
prisoners made Jack & Jones, Adidas, Metersbonwe, Camel and other name
brands. Medicines were sold to sick prisoners at high prices, and if they
didnt have money in their accounts, they wouldnt get treatment. I have
seen with my own eyes that prisoners with edema due to malnutrition
working over ten hours a day without any medication. And those who have
connections or money receive humane treatment.
Compared to jails in China, Shawshank looks like Heaven on earth.
Huang Wenxun requested that Obama tell Xi Jinping: The Chinese people
are going to wake up, and we hope the Communist Party abandons and
ends one-party rule. He said that he also hoped that the international
community will always be vigilant when dealing with dictatorships. Dont
rely on them, he cautioned, and dont be kidnapped by profit!
He wasnt sure whether the letter to Obama would bring him retaliation, or
more charges, from the authorities. But, Im not scared anymore. The
longer Im locked up, the more darkness I see, the little bit of fear in my
heart should die away, especially when they grabbed from me the family
letter notifying me of the death of my grandmother two days after the MidAutumn Festival. She wanted to see me on the holiday for family reunion.
He truly wishes that America will become stronger, and that its leaders,
like in the past, adopt a clear and firm stance against dictatorships. He
also believes that between the two camps of the free, democratic world
and the dictatorships, freedom will ultimately prevail.
At the end of the letter, he becomes elated as though he would fly free of
his cage and out of the high walls. Suddenly I thought of my hometown
and my father my yearning for light and freedom has never been this
strong. He propose that a World Freedom Day be established.
I cant bear to tell him: theres already a Human Rights Day, a Democracy
Day, an Anti-Torture Day. Adding a Freedom Day wont change anything.
China and the United States hold human rights dialogues every year, but
Chinas human rights situation has gotten worse and worse. On Friday
September 25, President Obama will welcome Xi Jinping to the White House
with a 21 gun salute. Even if the American president and people shrug their
shoulders at human rights in China, or at the large-scale arrest of human
rights lawyers and activists, this is the head of a regime that has hacked

the personnel records of millions of federal workers. Its tantamount to a

terrorist attack. Im also American and I want to know: What is wrong with
This isnt all. There are reports saying that when Xi visits, the White House
is going to shut Lafayette Square adjacent to the White House, forcing
protesters farther away. Lafayette Square, I heard, is hardly ever shut down
for protesters; its the very symbol of free speech in the face of power, and
it belongs to the people. Is White House enforcing a request from the
Chinese government? Whats wrong with Obama?
Now lets turn to Tang Jingling. In 2014 he was arrested on charges of
inciting subversion of state power, and was brought to trial this summer.
His sentence hasnt been announced.

Tang Jingling in front of Lin Zhao tomb, 2009.

This year Tang turns 44, but he looks much younger, bearing all the traces
of a youth from the plains of the Yangtze River and Han River who was shy
and proud. He used to visit Twitter often, the earliest impression I got of
him was from this tweet: Has there ever been law in the eyes of the
communist bandits? In late 1996 when I passed the bar exam and became
a lawyer, determined to commit myself to social justice, I went to the
Shantou court in Longhu, Guangdong, to attend a court hearing. It was my
first time to a court hearing. There was a young man on trial, accused of
rape. He painfully described how, in custody, he had his testicles smashed

by police to force a confession. The judge interrupted him hastily. This was
how I began my career as a lawyer.
I was new on Twitter when I read that. As a short story writer, I was drawn
to his story, imagining the feelings and thoughts passing through the newly
licensed young lawyer sitting in the back of the courtroom. I wanted to
interview him, and began to prepare. I even made a Tang Jingling folder on
my computer where I saved his articles I found online.
But I got busier and busier. I was constantly dealing with more urgent
things, and always felt that he wasnt in imminent danger and the interview
could wait. In the end, I never talked to him.
According to his self defense and final statement at trial, he was an early
adopter in using electronic bulletin boards, emails, independent websites,
online communities, and microblogging platforms to enlighten the public
about democracy. He became an active warrior against the Communist
Partys constant campaigns to censor and destroy such information. He
believed that the arrival of the Internet, coupled with the unstinting efforts
of liberals to express themselves, have redrawn the map of Chinas
political ideology, broken the monopoly of the Partys mouthpiece media on
Chinas public opinion sphere, and created an opportunity for the next
stage of Chinas democratic transformation.
In 2003 during the Sun Zhigang () case, netizens mobilized a
signature campaign to abolish the Custody and Repatriation system (
), and he was the legal adviser. In 2004, Tang and lawyer Gao Zhisheng
() provided defense for two shoe factory workers in Dongguan who
led a strike. Both were among the earliest rights lawyers. He was the
counsel for villagers in Taishi village, Guangdong, who revolted to impeach
corrupt village heads. Soon he was disbarred and his short career as a
lawyer ended.
But that was only the beginning of his struggle. Many in opposition circles
were beset by despair and saw no viable path and strategy following the
bloody crackdown in 1989 and cruel prison terms for those who tried to
organize opposition parties in the 1990s. But Tang Jingling believed that
Chinas democratization requires a strategy and it is possible. He found
inspiration in Gandhis idea of civil disobedience. In 2006, he started the
Buy-back My Ballot campaign: In 2006 and 2007, China held the first
county and township-level elections across the country that involved 900
million mostly rural Chinese. The campaign encouraged citizens to openly
state that they would not take part in the local vote registration, nor would

they vote.
There have been no real elections under the current regime, and citizens
have never been given the right to elect their leaders. The campaign
reminded people not to give up their rights silently; instead, protest the
lack of meaningful elections by making a statement.
In the spring of 2007, he initiated June Fourth Reflection Day, hoping to
activate the dormant seeds of the 1989 movement. In 2008, he started with
friends the April 29 Lin Zhao Cemetery Visit in Suzhou. Lin Zhao was a
student at Peking University when she was declared a rightist, and on April
29, 1968, she was executed in Shanghai. Lin Zhaos name in todays China
has become a symbol of opposition, thanks to a wave of scholastic and
documentary studies by liberal intellectuals and filmmakers.
The Lin Zhao Cemetery Visit lasted seven years, drawing more and more
activists each year. It has become such a standard pilgrimage for many
that the authorities have installed surveillance cameras over the tomb.
When the visitors arrive, the road leading up to the tomb is flanked by
black-clad police.

Tang Jingling, Wang Qingying and Yuan Xinting in Guangzhou wearing T-shirts that spread the democratic ideas.

Tang discovered, with joy, Dr. Gene Sharp and his non-violent resistance
handbooks. He and friends wore T-shirts with the words democracy and
freedom in Baiyun Hills, a tourist attraction in Guangzhou, to bring

elements of democratic culture into daily life. It didnt work in China.

Unsurprisingly each one of them was summoned by police and threatened.
From 2009, Tang initiated social projects such as my 583, the abolition of
household registration apartheid and the proposal of a basic retirement
plan, to mobilize ordinary people to demand their basic rights to livelihood.
He was one of the 303 Chinese who first signed Charter 08, and was among
those arrested during the Jasmine Revolution crackdown in 2011. The police
held him for 6 months and tortured him. They also turned his apartment
into a prison for his wife. In 2013, there was another round of sweeping
arrests which continued into this year with the disappearance of scores of
rights lawyers and activistsTang Jingling was once again swept up.
In the detention center he was locked up with embezzlers, gangsters,
smugglers, gamblers, con artists, murderers, and rapists. More than 20
people are locked in a closed cell of a little over 20 square meters with one
toilet and one cold water tap Here its a luxury to see the sunlight, the
clouds, the moon, the stars, or a blade of grass. Such ravages are beyond
the imagination of those who have not experienced it first hand. He
continued: Its like being tossed into a fire pit, or trampled underfoot.
Strictly speaking, what he and his colleagues have done is not that much,
and the impact they had is also minuscule. He knows this. My assessment
of what I have done is just the first shovel of dirt the foolish old man dug to
move the mountain in front of his house, or the first rock Jingwei dropped to
fill a sea. But the charge against him is grand: he is a subverter.
By comparison the careers of Gandhi and Mandela, two great freedom
fighters, were luxurious. As lawyers, they were able to practice normally. As
political leaders, they were able to organize. As activists, they could
demonstrate on the streets. As criminals on trial, they could defend
themselves eloquently. When I saw a photograph of Mandela doing
carpentry in the open, sunny yard of a prison, I thought that compared to
what goes on in China, his oppressors were rather merciful.
More than once Ive heard China watchers dismiss Chinas opposition
movement. They shake their heads impatiently: You dont have to like the
Communist Party, but theres no viable alternative. Listening to them, you
get the sense that the opposition is incompetent and worthlesstheir
reading of China barely conceals their unthinking acceptance and adoration
of power.
The 49-year-old Guo Feixiong (A.K.A. Yang Maodong) is a product of the
Western liberal thinking that surged through China in the 1980s. The

genesis of his political opposition came from the 1986 student movement,
which he took part in as a philosophy student in Shanghai, and the 1989
movement when he was a teacher in Hubei Province. He described the
exploration of peaceful opposition during the 1990s as the god of medicine
tasting a hundred plants to determine their properties. In the rights
movement that was born and shaped between 2003 to 2005, he saw an
expandable path for Chinese political opposition thats highly original,
deeply rooted, and indelible.
In the seminal Taishi Village incident () in which villagers
revolted to remove corrupt village heads, he became the brain and the
nerve center. We worked together within the law (which the government
was obliged to pretend, at least, to recognize) to defend political and
human rights and raise democratic awareness. Everything we did was
completely open and procedurally proper. We supported landmark cases,
including Cai Zhuohuas () imprisonment for printing Bibles and the
collective efforts of Taishi Village residents to impeach corrupt officials. The
impact of these cases was magnified by the Internet, where they won broad
sympathy and participation from society at large.
In his own words, he is one of the earliest definers, makers, and foot
soldiers of the rights movement.
His prison career started almost as soon as his leadership in the rights
movement. Since April 2005, he has been incarcerated four times, and the
third time he was sentenced to five years in prison for illegal business
operations. He enjoyed a short-lived, surveilled freedom from September
2011 to August 2013, when he was imprisoned again.
Because of his refusal to compromise, my interrogators have used
excessive force on me and have resorted to many forms of torture. They
have tasered my head, hands, shins, thighs and private parts in sequence,
yelling You were offered parole and you said no! You prefer jail and making
the Communist Party look bad! Well see who is tougher here you or the
Party! Their torture aims at coercing a confession in court, where they want
me to admit that I am wrong to oppose the Party and that I will give up the
fight for democracy of my own free will in exchange for parole and for
getting my university job back. Their broader intent is to undermine the
image of the rights defense movement and to demoralize civil society by
getting a few standard bearers, as they put it, to accept parole.
For thirteen days and nights, they put me through marathon interrogations
and denied me sleep. For forty-two days, I was reviled, beaten, and

shackled, with the shackles nailed to a bed. My hair was plucked out. Once
my torturer applied a high-wattage taser to my groin. To defend my dignity
as a man, I had to confess to the utterly groundless accusation of an illegal
business operation. I barely escaped the fate of my cellmate, whose penis
was zapped to a blackened smear.
Bill Keller, executive editor of The New York Times, wrote about the Mandela
trial in the papers obituary of him: His legend grew when, on the first day
of that trial, he entered the courtroom wearing a traditional Xhosa leopardskin cape to underscore that he was an African entering a white mans
jurisdiction. I dont know what a Xhosa leopard-skin cape looks like, but I
can imagine Mandela walking into the court, wrapped in a leopard-skin
cape, noble, tall, and irresistibly charming.
But Guo Feixiong lamented: In 2007, an honest commitment to promote
democracy by going to jail was such an arduous thing to attempt. In fact,
more than stripping dissidents of their freedom, the Communist Party has
always used extreme cruelty to strip them of their dignity.
This time around, Guo Feixiong has been incarcerated simply for urging the
Chinese government to ratify the International Covenant on Civil and
Political Rights and for taking part in the call for press freedom during the
Southern Weekend incident in 2013. He has been denied yard time for 776
days, since the Chinese authorities secretly detained him on August 8,
2013. Liu Yuandong (), who was arrested and tried without a verdict
for his participation in the same incident, has not had yard time for 924
days. Chinas tyrannical rulers use these methods to destroy the lives of
dissenting citizens.
To fellow political prisoners who buckle under torture, Guo Feixiong has only
tolerance and understanding. We should save our condemnation for the
perpetrators, the people who deny their opponents dignified prison time
and a dignified death, who trample such dignity underfoot. We should never
use philosophical contortions to rationalize the bestiality of totalitarian
rule, he wrote.
Guo Feixiong is a doer. For those of us who are committed to this cause,
action is imperative. Only through action can we prove to history that we
did not surrender our dignity to dictators, and that we did not give up the
purity we cherish the most The chief and greatest punishment we have
for totalitarianism is a thorough rejection of its rejection of justice and
He also saw himself as Sisyphus who rolls an immense boulder up a hill,

Prometheus who steals the fire, the hero Kuafu who dies chasing the sun, or
the foolish old man who is determined to move the mountain.
The court statement he issued on November 29, 2014, following his trial
thus concludes, our exploration and toil have not been in vain. Our path is
becoming ever clearer, and the horizons of our souls ever broader. To have
had the opportunity to rush forward on the front lines of the movement for
freedom, torturous as it has been; to have gone against the tide and borne
the cost of doing so; and to have glimpsed the beauty inherent in my
personal tragedy and in the sacred purity that is part of paying the price
these have been the immense good fortune of an ordinary man.
Quite frankly, I cannot imagine how he could have written this in his prison
Why doesnt China have a Mandela? Following the passing of Mandela at
the end of 2013, I asked Mr. Hu Ping () whose pamphlet On Freedom of
Speech enlightened many young students during the 1980s. He said, One
of the greatest ironies of history is that the most famous freedom fighters
were famous because, to a great extent, the oppression they revolted
against was not tyrannical and cruel in the extreme.
I also noticed that, on Twitter, many Chinese tweeps pointed out the
opponents of Mandelas struggle. What formed Mandelas greatness,
wrote lawyer Liu Xiaoyuan, apart from his belief and perseverance, was
more importantly the fact that the rulers respected a bottom line: Mandela
was almost never beaten in custody. Just think: having been imprisoned for
over 20 years, he was still able to walk out of jail in good health and without
having to confess to his crimes. This is simply unthinkable in
In other words, the Communist Party is so savage and despicable that any
Mandela in China would be destroyed before they had the chance to
become Mandela.
On the day of Mandelas funeral, I turned on the television for once.
President Obama was speaking. There are too many leaders who claim
solidarity with Madibas struggle for freedom, but do not tolerate dissent
from their own people. And there are too many of us on the sidelines,
comfortable in complacency or cynicism when our voices must be heard.
All of a sudden, our president looked to me like an actorsaying the most
beautiful words on an occasion that demanded no courage or leadership. I
jumped up and turned the television off.

Of course, there is another part of Mandelas funeral I remember: that the

sign language interpreter next to President Obama, gesticulating vividly,
was in fact an impostor.
Yaxue Cao () is the founder and editor of China Change. Follow her on
Twitter @YaxueCao.