Outspoken Chinese law professor, government critic, silenced
By Gerry Shih
BEIJING — One of the Chinese government’s most vocal critics is finally falling silent.
He Weifang told The Associated Press Friday that he would no longer publish on social media after authorities repeatedly shut down his personal blog, his Weibo microblog and two WeChat accounts.
He, a famed law professor at elite Peking University and key defender of imprisoned Chinese Nobel Peace Prize laureate Liu Xiaobo, is the latest public intellectual to throw in the towel in President Xi Jinping’s China. Over the past half-decade, freedom of speech and other civil liberties have been rolled back while a radical movement devoted to the People’s Republic’s authoritarian founder Mao Zedong has flourished.
“I feel utterly helpless,” He said by telephone. “It’s as if I’m not allowed to make a single sound.”
He attracted a massive following in Chinese intellectual circles over the past decade for his prolific writings on everything from social ills to architecture, but especially for his languid but trenchant essays on rule of law and politics. By his own count, He boasted 20 million readers at his peak. When his Weibo account was frozen in March, it had roughly 1.9 million followers.
Over the past five years, however, He has come under relentless attack online from defenders of the ruling Communist Party and even more extreme Maoists who’ve held public demonstrations denouncing He’s liberal views, which are considered “rightist” on China’s political spectrum. His speaking engagements dried up three years ago after the Global Times, a party-run newspaper with a leftist bent, reported critically on a lecture he delivered to retired party cadres in southern China, essentially ruling him out of the lecture circuit.
“In the last 40 years, freedom of speech for intellectuals has never been constricted as severely as it is now,” He said. “It makes you outraged.”
Other prominent liberals have been systematically silenced since Xi ascended to power in 2012, ushering in a deep-seated suspicion of liberal Western values and thought. The Unirule Institute of Economics, a liberal think tank headed by the well-known, free-market economist Mao Yushi, was shuttered in January. And elderly editors at a liberal historical journal that examined Chinese history were pushed out last year.
“He is one of the most influential public intellectuals — a spokesman for liberalism,” said Teng Biao, a visiting scholar at New York University who practiced and taught law in Beijing before leaving for the U.S. in 2014. “Scholars with an independent spirit or the courage to criticize will never have a good end.”
He has long been a thorn in the Communist Party’s side and participated in sensitive campaigns, such as the pro-democracy manifesto movement in 2008 that resulted in a brief quasi-exile from his prestigious Beijing university. But until recently, the government has allowed him a degree of freedom to write.
For years, He singled out the lack of judicial independence as a fundamental fault in China’s political system. In January he took aim at China’s top judge, Zhou Qiang, after Zhou dismissed an American-style separation of powers and independent courts as “mistaken Western concepts.”
He spoke out again months later, in March, after China passed a law forbidding the criticism of Communist Party heroes. That essay was the one that seemed to finally land him in trouble irrevocably, He said.
As his decision to stop writing spread among China’s intellectual and dissident circles in recent days, some have urged He to take his writing to Facebook and Twitter, two services that are inaccessible in mainland China without the use of special VPN software — but also beyond the reach of Communist Party censors.
He said he has considered that option but decided against publishing on any platform that would not be accessible to the majority of Chinese readers.
“In my mind, whenever I have written, I have always imagined writing for the audience that lives on this land,” he said.