Organizing public debate in China is challenging, but former Xi’an professor Chen Hongguo does. Journalist Ian Johnson visited the book club Zhiwuzhi Chen established after he decided to leave university, and discusses how he manages to survive, for the NY Review of Books.
NY Review of Books:
Do you miss the university?
Zhiwuzhi is better than a university. I could only give a few lectures a month at the university and the authorities had to approve everything. It was so difficult. If I tried to lecture, then the students’ advisers would try to convince them not to attend and would note who had and who hadn’t attended. Now we give on average ten lectures a week on everything from the environment to the #MeToo movement. It’s also much more meaningful. It’s open to the public. It’s helping to train a true civil society.
In this political climate how do you stay open?
I’ve tried to figure this out. We talk about being closed. It could happen. Last week we had [the Chengdu intellectual and Christian activist] Ran Yunfei. Thirty minutes into his talk, plainclothes police arrived. I went over to them and we spoke while Ran was speaking. They took pictures. We welcomed them and were courteous.
But the first thing I’d say is I’m not a revolutionary. Secondly, if you have a place where you’re located, it’s easier for them. They know where you are. They can monitor you. And, finally, I’m not making a political statement.
I also don’t make them into the enemy. I’m not their enemy. I respect them. It’s their job. They have to make a living too. I say to them, “Look, your politics is too low-class for me. We’re doing culture, not politics.” I say to them, “Look, politics is beyond me. It’s not my paygrade. But culture, that’s something else.”
My argument is also that this is a good thing. It’s good for Xi’an’s culture. We’re a calling card for Xi’an. At the end of last year  someone from Public Security came to see me and said they can basically support us, but sometimes you’ve made some mistakes. Basically they can accept us, even if some nights are more controversial.
I met an off-duty police officer here the other night.
That’s Zhiwuzhi! He’s a police officer[, but when he comes he’s here] on his own time. Some public servants are warned not to attend our events. “You’re talking to the enemy! It’s sensitive! Don’t go there! It’s not good for your career!” But some still come anyway.
My main view is: no secrets. You have to realize they’ll hear everything, even our conversation right now. They will know. Absolutely. Don’t think you can keep a secret from them. They really do know everything. It’s a system. It’s not one guy following you.
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