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January 24, 2022

Tribute to an ‘Ordinary Chinese Activist’

Authorities detained labor activist Wang Jianbing and journalist Huang Xueqin on September 19 in Guangzhou, Guangdong province. After more than a month without news, their families learned that they had both been charged with “inciting subversion of state power,” though no one has been allowed to meet with them.

The author, a close friend of Wang Jianbing, works in the civil society sector. They believe writing under their own name could be harmful to friends in China, so they have chosen to remain anonymous.

* * *

I first met Jianbing on a cold Gansu winter day over twelve years ago, in the Year of the Ox. As fate would have it, the same astrological sign that brought a dear friend into my life snatched him away mercilessly when it returned twelve years later.

I remember that day as if it were yesterday. Jianbing was getting up from a bunk bed in the hostel dormitory where we were both staying at the time. He was intrigued by this foreigner arriving with a Beijing colleague, and was relieved to learn that said foreigner could speak enough Mandarin to communicate with those around him.

Jianbing was born in rural Gansu. The first in his family to get a college degree, he made the brave choice to work at a non-profit, the Beijing Western Sunshine Rural Development Foundation, instead of landing a more secure and well-paid job in an average urban company. He joined the foundation’s kindergarten program so that he could help kids from rural areas access a better education than the one he had himself.

He is a soft-spoken and highly reflective person who always knows how to make people comfortable through simple gestures and glances. I’ve always admired his open-mindedness, his ability to listen and ponder things before making any judgment. Unlike many of the other Chinese activists I have met over the years, Jianbing is fond of Chinese classical culture, and while he was at university, he taught himself to sing several different provincial styles of Chinese opera just from listening to them online. It wasn’t uncommon for him to start singing an opera or reciting a Tang poem while walking the streets of Beijing or Lanzhou, ignoring the bewildered looks of passers-by.

After our encounter in Gansu, life sent us on different paths for a few years, but we kept in touch through common friends. When we met again, it was in a different China. General Secretary Xi Jinping had replaced Hu Jintao. Many activists had been jailed. NGOs and intellectuals once praised by the regime were shut down and censored. But Jianbing was still himself, slightly more pessimistic, but calm and convinced that China needed people to tell the stories of sick migrant workers, oppressed women, and traumatized activists.

He did not deny the real material progress China has made, a progress he could very well see in his hometown, where kids had food to eat, clothes to wear, and toys to play with—a far cry from his own childhood. But he sensed that this progress came at the expense of other marginalized groups, groups the government deliberately ignored, hid, or jailed as if they were blemishes on an otherwise spotless record. He was also angry that even those who enjoyed the benefits of such progress had to continually praise the Party and the government for their great bounty.

He felt there were many issues that couldn’t be solved by simply building glimmering high-speed rail lines or enabling consumerism in once-deprived rural areas. Among them: the fate of migrant workers, whom he had come to deeply understand in the previous few years, as well as the treatment of sexual harassment victims, which had made him a staunch supporter of the #MeToo movement.

One of the last times we spoke, I had already sensed that things were getting worse in China, and I reluctantly suggested that he should write down his fascinating life story—even if he was only 38 years old, and even if it were only for himself.

I will never forget his answer: “You know there’s nothing special to write about me. I’m just an ordinary Chinese activist. Many of the companions (xiao huoban) around me are much braver and have much more interesting stories to tell.”

I hope we’ll soon be able to pick up our conversation again, drinking tea, eating sunflower seeds, and laughing as we did in that dim hostel dormitory on a cold Gansu night twelve years ago.


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