The ups and downs in life are different for everyone. God gives each person different trials. Satan also tests people in many different ways.
But fortunately, when God created human beings, the spirit he breathed into them constitutes common characteristics that make a person human: conscience, a sense of justice, love, and other beautiful qualities. These have guided humans and humanity in a forward direction, no matter how rugged the path.
The marvelous arrangement that God has made for us is like the earth revolving around the sun. When I look back on my life experience, the path has been full of twists and turns but it is also clear and distinct.
My grandfather was a scholarly and refined old doctor of traditional medicine. He was classified as an "industrial and commercial landlord" by the authorities. During the Mao Zedong era, this classification amounted to “original sin” for all three generations of the family. My father was accomplished in music, chess, calligraphy, and painting, and also knew some martial arts. But because of the family's class designation, he spent his whole life as a peasant. When I just started walking, I personally witnessed my paternal grandfather and father criticized and “struggled against” in public denunciation sessions. They were programs reserved for seriously entertainment-deprived country folk. The thing I remember most was this scene: My father, his hands tied behind him, thirsty but unable to help himself. A militiaman guarding him gave him some water from a bowl of coarse porcelain. This scene, as it replays in my mind time and again, cuts me like a knife.
When I was little, I was cursed as a "landlord's bastard." I could not know that I was not to blame, and took it for granted that I was inferior.
When I was a child, my father was the only one around me who recognized the evil in despotic rule. He was astute in critiquing Mao's regime: "The gates of people's communes are like mouths that eat people. Their windows are the eyes of demons."
From early childhood, I received a “red” education and deeply loved the "Party." In Red China, of course the "Party" is the Communist Party, there were no others. I thought my father's criticism of the authorities was just bitterness and did not take it seriously. At that time, I had no ability to reflect on why I must love the Party deeply and why I must be loyal to the Party. And if the Party belongs to the people, then why did it not suffice to pledge loyalty directly to the people? Why beat around the bush? Let us say that the Communist Party's legitimacy is the result of its seizing political power, and that, for this reason, it is great, glorious, and correct, and therefore it should "live for 10,000 years." But is this not how the emperors in past dynasties acquired their political power? Then why is it that, without exception, they all ended up in a pile of desolate graves and like scattered ashes and vanishing smoke?
In that environment where I grew up, classes were very clearly distinguished. The hierarchy was: cadres, teachers, workers, and peasants. The differences not only manifested in social benefits, but also took root in people's hearts. It is the latter that is truly hideous because people voluntarily acknowledged this kind of hierarchy and never looked into its origin or a way to improve it. In every class, the higher up discriminated against those below them, and those below envied those above them. Everyone's dream was to advance their own children's status, rather than try to make this kind of system fairer. My father once described this system vividly: "The system of the Communist Party of China is an expansion of the hereditary system." Children of cadres became cadres, those of teachers teachers, those of workers workers, and those of peasants peasants. Among each class there were subdivisions. For example, janitors’ children would still be janitors.
In a stroke of bad luck, my father was subjugated by power that was derived from force. Proud and contemptuous, he despised this power. It was only natural that my father spent more than half his life penniless and frustrated.
As a peasant’s child, I was often treated unfairly in education and when I looked for work. I did not have much choice, and accepted the hand I was dealt. The only thing I could do was try my utmost to play the best hand possible. There was no alternative.
I have many siblings. Our financial situation was dire for many years. No matter how hard we worked, we could not improve our lot. Except for plowing the fields with oxen, I have done all kinds of farm work. The hardest of all was the yearly “double rush”—when we had to rush to harvest early-season rice and then plant late-season seedlings before August 1 of every year; otherwise, the farm work could not be synchronized. July is the hottest month in south China. The heat was oppressive. We had the sun beating mercilessly on our heads while our feet were planted in the paddy water, which would become scalding hot. Even more terrible was the havoc wreaked by all the stinging insects and moths, which made me to scratch myself all over my body with my muddy hand. In fact, there was not a chance that the village girl, "Xiao Fang," could possibly be pretty.
Peasant life under a communist dictatorship is absolutely not the idyllic pastoral composed by poets. It is full of economic exploitation and political repression. The “price scissors differential” [keeping farm prices down while boosting prices of industrial products] makes it impossible for peasants to get rich. The household registration system makes it difficult for a peasant to get ahead. Though villagers around me had a simple and honest side, they also had their ignorant side. Ignorance was caused by the backward education system and by the regime's deliberate brainwashing.
These experiences gave me a deep understanding of the sufferings and worries of people at the bottom of society. I am full of pity and compassion for them.
I was different from the other village children in that my family had the largest book collection in the village. In an environment where most were illiterate or half-illiterate, other than the Selected Works of Chairman Mao, most families had almost no books. In our house, despite having gone through so many political “movements” and having so many books and other possessions confiscated, my father still came up with ways of keeping and finding old books. Among them was even the Kangxi Dictionary published in the Qing Dynasty. While my brothers were out playing, I, as a young girl, would immerse myself in that pile of old books. These books became the only thing that comforted me and gave me hope in my lonely childhood years. They gave me a sense of beauty and a fantasy world different from reality. They also laid a foundation for my studies of Chinese culture, and gave shape to my literary pursuit and traditional cultural framework. Classical novels such as Three Kingdoms, Water Margin, and Dream of Red Mansions made me think about bringing peace and stability to my country, and helping the world and saving the people. Years later, recalling my old self—a peasant girl unable to fend for herself but worried about all the problems of the world—I could not but sigh with deep emotion.
There was another kind of book. They were the only kind of "cultural" products permitted in an atmosphere of authoritarian political oppression—propaganda extolling Communist Party heroes. Those heroic stories—which only later did I realize were exaggerated or even made-up—often made me burn with anger. The Communist Party surely did not expect that it was precisely this education of heroism that—after I saw through the evil of the single-party system—ultimately propelled me firmly on the path to work for the destruction of the Communist Party dictatorship and for the development of a constitutional democracy.
On June 4, 1989, the regime used tanks and machine guns to declare war on its people. As a participant and witness, I saw different periods of history at work: in taking this action, the Chinese Communists were at the same time continuing the old practice of suppressing political dissent and launching stability maintenance with violence. Hereafter, with regard to the CPC, my heart was dead as ashes: the possibility of peace with it no longer existed.
After graduating from college I was assigned by the city government to work for one year as a township official to engage in, among other tasks, “family planning” work. At a meeting, I heard a village leader issue a quota for fines, like a bandit chief giving looting assignments. I remember the director of the family planning office grumbling: “family planning isn't a for-profit enterprise, how can you set quotas?" When township and village officials entered villages, they, in an organized way, destroyed houses and took away cattle, searched premises and made their arrests at midnight, took people in at will, and implicated innocent relatives. They hooted, smashed, terrorized. Even the animals were not spared. I didn’t have the heart to do the job. What I could do was aim my gun a bit high, including letting a detained pregnant woman escape at night and getting criticized for it.
At that time, the mayor of my hometown, Lianyuan City, Hunan Province, was named Gao Chaoqun, and the Party secretary’s name was Lu Jiakang. I saw a slogan on the wall in the street that read: "The life of officials is 'Better than average people's' [a pun on the mayor's name] and the people's life is ‘good in every family' [a pun on the party secretary's name]." Slogans like this one were the Weibo posts of the time, and also similar to the "Airs of the States," a section of The Book of Songs. They vividly reflect the discontent of the people and their wisdom.
In 1996, led by the prominent peasant leader Huang Guoqing, several thousand farmers in my hometown demanded the reduction of their annual “peasant burden” to no avail. Taking their hoes and shoulder poles, the angry peasants attacked the city government and stormed and raided the Party secretary’s house. Reportedly, everything in the Party secretary's house was thoroughly counted. On the one hand, the authorities were compelled to reduce the amount of the “peasant burden” in order to calm things down. On the other, they did settle scores by arresting and sentencing several peasant leaders. Huang Guoqing was sentenced to 13 years in prison. During the trial, the authorities acted as if they were dealing with a mortal enemy. I witnessed how the Communist Party, which itself came into existence through peasant uprisings, put down a peasant uprising. This shook me tremendously. (Sixteen years later, a friend commented to me during the 2011 Wukan Uprising in Guangdong Province that it was the first organized rural uprising to occur since the CPC came to power in 1949. I said it was not. I then described the peasant uprising that happened in my hometown in the 1990s. Even though it shocked the State Council in Beijing, it was not widely known to the public because the Internet was still underdeveloped. I'm mentioning this incident here to commemorate it.)
As I walk this road of life, I never stop reflecting: How should I live my life? How should I contribute to society?
Later, I summed up my journey as: "I'm running forward because behind me there is a tiger chasing me, and ahead there is a pot of gold attracting me." The mental suffering caused by class discrimination made me reflect on social injustices. The natural instinct to pursue freedom and happiness makes me dream about the future: Remake one's destiny and help others. These dreams have always helped me maintain forward momentum.
One incident that changed my life was when a close relative was suspected of committing a crime. At that moment, I decided that I would apply to study law. I deliberately avoided reading an old law exam book so that I would not get the new and the old laws mixed together. In July, the assigned book for the lawyer’s qualifying exam came out. It had 6,032 pages. The test was to be given on the second weekend in October. After I got the assigned book, I studied like mad, night and day. In those three months, I went from being legally illiterate to being a lawyer. That period of hard study can almost be said to have been inhuman.
From that point on, my thoughts and ideas took flight: from perception to reason, and from muddled-ness to clarity. Lawyers are people who deal with the devil; the law profession is the best window into understanding the society. Working as a lawyer has allowed me to understand my society on a deeper level. The discipline of legal study has also helped me look at everything through the eyes of a jurist—that is, with scrutiny.
Because I only had three months of basic legal study, I felt deeply about my ignorance. I decided to attend a law school and become a graduate student. At the same time, I clearly understood that I should go to an even bigger world. In China, nothing is bigger than Beijing. The target was very clear. Even before the entrance exam scores were made public, I left Hunan for Beijing. Before I left, I said quietly to a close friend: "I definitely passed, unless the sun rises from the west...." Just a few days after I arrived in Beijing, I learned that my wish had been fulfilled and that I was admitted to the Beijing University of International Business and Economics. When I signed up for the entrance exam, I had heard that this university was fair and took students in the order of their test scores. In fact, with my test score I could have attended any university I wanted to. In order to realize my long-standing ambition to serve my country, I headed in the not-so-popular direction of international law. And I picked Professor Bian Yongmin as my advisor, who was not of great seniority, but was young, upright, and erudite, with an international outlook. My graduation thesis was on human rights. As for my classmates, most of them went into research or lucrative professions and businesses.
In reference to my graduation thesis, there is a story.
My academically-strict advisor praised my thesis highly. Before I defended it, she said to me: "Xiao Guozhen, your thesis is already very, very good."
In defending one's thesis, the rule is that the chairman of the thesis defense committee must be an "expert" from another university. It happened that at the time, a high-ranking official from the Hainan Provincial Procuratorate by the name of Li Yanbing was studying for his Ph.D. at our school while still a public servant. (Those who know China will understand why high-ranking Chinese officials acquire advanced degrees.) He was asked to be the provisional "chairman" in order for the committee to reach quorum.
This Mr. Li was quite interesting. Occupying the chairman's seat, he genuinely believed he was knowledgeable enough to condescend to experts on the thesis committee and me, the thesis defendant. At the same time, as a member of a dictatorial party and an official, Mr. Li turned his hatred of human rights into a direct personal attack against me and the China Democratic League while I was defending my thesis. (In introducing me, the thesis defense secretary had mentioned my membership in the China Democratic League.) Playing the role of a prosecutor to the hilt and assuming the attitude and method of one interrogating a criminal, he criticized my academic research using political standards. Of course, his “assessment” conformed with the standard habits of the Communist Party, that is: bludgeon, tar, no reason, no logic.
What he did made other professors on the committee look at each other in dismay, and startled and angered me. I would have gotten into a heated debate with him if it were not for the fact that my advisor—who knew my temperament—warned me in advance. She said: "Xiao Guozhen, remember this: during this defense don't get into an argument." I restrained myself, and with the high approval of the other professors on the committee, my thesis passed. After finding out what had happened, my advisor said: "When I think about this, it makes me want to laugh. You once said you're willing to go to jail for the cause of human rights in China, and now you're bludgeoned just for talking about viewpoints. But this is good—at least you got to know about China's human rights situation through this." This was my personal experience with “academic freedom Chinese-style.” When politics reign supreme, only by obeying authority and the party dictatorship could one meet the academic standard.
Different from so many of my classmates who went from school to school, I brought with me questions that arose from my practice of law. They gave me a research focus, namely: how to improve human rights, how to perfect rule of law, and how to implement a constitutional government in China. While studying, I paid close attention to what was happening in society. It was at this time that I became aware of Professor Hu Xingdou. His ideas resonated with me. Professor Hu is very open-minded. He publicizes his home telephone number on the Internet. One time, wanting to get in touch with him, I called his number. He told me that "Sunshine Constitutionalism” (Gongmeng) would have a meeting at a house in Huaqingjiayuan on a certain day, but that he was not going to go, and recommended that I go. So I went. There were about 20 people at the place, including Mr. He Weifang, Mr. Xiao Han, and Mr. Wang Keqin, etc. Everyone expressed his or her own ideas. How happy and hopeful it made one feel to know that there was such a crowd of people enthusiastic about promoting public good and social justice!
There's a small thing I have to mention. One time, as a resident of the Chaoyang District of Beijing, I reported an illegal action by a judge, in accordance with the law. I went to the district people's congress standing committee office, asking for the name list of the deputies of people's congress, in order to speed up the dismissal of this court official. But I was refused without being given a reason. As a Chinese citizen, I have no legal way to find out who my district people's congress deputies are. But, shortly after that, I was able to meet the U.S. president Obama, members of the U.S. Congress, and officials in the U.S. State Department. The difference is so great between the two systems that one could only smile in resignation.
As a lawyer, I've always stayed alert regarding social problems. I've diligently circumvented the regime's strict news censorship and Internet blockade in pursuing the truths of history and reality. And the truths reveal themselves one after another.
I realized: my experience is a microcosm of those of myriad Chinese people. Under autocratic rule, no family or individual can escape the dictatorial clutches of persecution, whether tangible, intangible, material, spiritual, physical, or mental.
I realized: under a one-party system, corruption is inevitable and not an accident. It is universal and not isolated. It is both in appearance and in essence.
I realized: the history of the CPC’s rise and development is drenched in blood, despicable, ugly, and cannot be made public. The CPC deceived the people of China and the governments of foreign countries in launching a civil war to violently overthrow the Republic of China. Inside China, it has suppressed dissent; abroad, it has wielded a big stick, but, at the same time, forfeited its sovereignty and humiliated the nation. It has destroyed all things truthful, kind, and beautiful. It has taken the most conscientious and outstanding of the Chinese people and locked them in jails and sent them to the guillotines and into exile overseas. It has broken the backbone of the Chinese people, and methodically neutered the intelligentsia and turned them into lap dogs. It regards the average people as trifles and enemies. It exploits its people and turns their blood and sweat into funds for suppressing and hoodwinking them. Its crimes are too numerous to record and incur the wrath of God and men.
The CPC’s conduct of trampling on the rule of law and on human rights has created a tragic fate for the Chinese people. This grieves me. But people of lofty ideals are charging forward to struggle for democracy and freedom. This enables me to envision a bright future for China and hear the roar of the coming tide of constitutional democracy.
When I communicate with my fellow rights defense lawyers, although we rarely mention our personal experiences, we all surprisingly have the same understanding and ideas. Our innate conscience and our natural instinct to seek truth will inevitably lead us toward the final sanctuary of universal values.
Twenty-first century China is constantly changing. In this the world's most populous country, the economy develops rapidly on the foundation of low labor costs, which have allowed the CPC to accumulate an unparalleled amount of resources. As the official exploitation of the average people intensifies, the gap between rich and poor widens. The ongoing expansion of the Internet has broken the authorities’ monopoly on information. East-West cultural exchanges have helped people understand the concept of constitutional democracy and helped it become a common value among all people. All this will result in the rise and vigorous development of a citizens' movement, and the regime's stability maintenance by force will turn more systematized and grid-like.
After I was freed from the yoke of my family, I threw myself into the citizens’ movement.
The hard work in my youth and the many years of tortuous exploration have made my will strong as steel. Though I have not accomplished much in my life, they have kept me moving forward in my chosen path in spite of all setbacks.
I firmly believe: God is light. He is like the sun above the clouds that shines on all of the earth. Heaven help China!
English translation by Human Rights in China.
 The Kangxi Dictionary, published in 1716, was the standard Chinese dictionary during the 18th and 19th centuries.
 The oldest collection of Chinese poetry, dating from 11th to 7th centuries BC.
 Taxes and fees imposed on farmers by local authorities.
 The China Democratic League is one of the eight political parties legally recognized by the Chinese government.
 An economist, Hu Xingdou (胡星斗) is Professor of Economics at Beijing Institute of Technology.
 Also known as "Open Constitution Initiative" (OCI), it was a group set up in 2003 by lawyers and scholars to promote the rule of law. It was shut down by the authorities in 2009, ostensibly for “tax evasion.”
 A neighborhood in Beijing.
 He Weifang (贺卫方), Peking University professor and prominent advocate of judicial reform in China; he argues that the Chinese Communist Party is unregistered and therefore an illegal organization.
 Mr. Xiao Han (萧瀚), Associate Professor at the China University of Political Science and Law, Law School.
 Mr. Wang Keqin (王克勤), an influential Chinese muckraking reporter and blogger, and professor at Peking University.
Xiao Guozhen (肖国珍), born in 1972, is a Beijing-based lawyer from Hunan. She is a graduate of the University of International Business and Economics School of Law in Beijing. Because of her rights defense-related work, she has been subjected to police surveillance, threats, and unlawful restriction of personal freedom. She was named one of the 25 Notable Rights Defenders in Mainland China in 2012 by Boxun.com, a Chinese-language news website based overseas. She is a member of the China Democratic League and the PEN International Independent Chinese Centre.