Rule of Law

Civil disobedience in Sodom – A letter to Xu Zhiyong

(September 18, 2013) Guo Yushan, a longtime friend and colleague of high-profile Chinese human rights activist Xu Zhiyong, penned a grand and robust entreaty to Xu in late July (translated here into English), urging Xu to stand his ground as he awaits trial for “assembling a crowd to disrupt order in a public place.” In reality, Xu, a well-known lawyer and founder of China’s fledgling “New Citizens’ Movement”,  had called on officials to disclose their financial assets as it is thought assets disclosure will reveal the true level of corruption among government officials who exploit their political power for personal gain. In his letter, Guo likens Xu to Socrates facing the wrath of Athens and China to the disgraced biblical city of Sodom, and exhorts Xu to rise to his fate as an idealist, unrepentant — “let them charge you, let them torture you”. 

From a long-time friend who was also the man who delivered Chen Guangcheng to safety in 2012. 

By Guo Yushan  

Published by China on August 10, 2013

That government, powerful as it was, didn’t scare me into doing anything unjust.
– Ascribed to Socrates by Plato in The Apology


Congratulations for having been put in jail.

I have been worrying that, if they leave you free after arresting so many of your friends in the New Citizens’ Movement, how viciously they would have put you in an unjust position. Now it looks like the government is helping you out. Along with dozens of other participants in the Movement, you are also wearing the prison vest and paying the price that’s sure to come.

I know you have long prepared for this and are at ease with it, but still, I’m saddened. Ten years ago, we met on the campus of Peking University. We collaborated and we founded “Sunshine Constitutionalism” that later became Gong Meng (the Open Constitution Initiative, 公盟). We rented an apartment together where you had a room and I had a room. During the day, we engaged in activities, and in the evenings we drank beer together and talked about our social ideals. We have aged over the last ten years. I am tired even though my ideals remain. We both are still on the road, but you, tirelessly, have gone much farther.

I am shrewder than you, and you are more valiant than I am. Now that you are in jail, this very thought makes me ashamed of myself. Over beers ten years ago, you talked about how lonely you felt on the campus of Peking University. Before you got there, you had thought it was a place filled with idealists, but once there, you couldn’t find any. You were disappointed. One day it occurred to me, “Hey, why look elsewhere?” You yourself were the idealist. Ten years have gone by, you are persuading people to be new citizens in this Sodom, and your ideals have stirred people far and wide.

People in Sodom are vulgar, greedy and ruthless. You walk among them urging them not to submit to the rulers of the city-state without thinking, not to treat each other cruelly. You encourage them to be open, honest new citizens, to love and to be just, and to uphold the ethical principles in whatever they are doing. You have never been shy in acknowledging it is a political cause, because “citizenship” depends on the political structure of the city-state, and it is impossible to define “new citizens” without a new political structure. Of course, more than a political cause, it is also a social movement, because no fresh fruit will grow out of a venomous tree, and Sodom will forever be Sodom if its people don’t strive to be new citizens.

In Sodom, it is never a question whether the rulers are going to tolerate your ideals. Jehovah wanted to destroy Sodom and Gomorrah, two city-states of evil, with fire and sulfur, and Abraham pleaded with him to spare Sodom if ten just men could be found. However, ten just men could not be found in Sodom except for Lot, nephew of Abraham, and it was eventually destroyed by Jehovah and sunken to the bottom of the Dead Sea. Now, you are again looking for just men in Sodom, and will you be able to find ten of them to spare Sodom from destruction?

But before Sodom meets its fate, you have been put on trial. This is destiny, the destiny of being a just man in Sodom. The subjects of Sodom will encircle you, humiliate you, curse you, and throw rocks at you. They will even sing and dance to celebrate. Before the destructive fire and sulfur fell from the sky, they are willing to destroy all hopes, believing they can block Jehovah’s wrath through terror and recklessness. According to the Bible, at the last moment when Sodom was about to meet its ruin, the subjects of the city-state, coming from all directions, encircled the home of Lot and demanded that Lot surrender the two angels, who had arrived in Sodom and staying in Lot’s house, for their pleasure.

For you and for us, the idealists, the road is long and arduous.

And Sodom is not the only case. Even in Athens, they put Socrates and his new citizens’ movement on trial and sentenced him to death by drinking hemlock. Unlike Sodom, Athens was a blessed city-state, but even so, the Athenians couldn’t stand Socrates’ ceaseless questioning of their virtues. For centuries, the citizens of Athens had only accepted the epics of Homer and mythology of Hesoid, worshiping heroes and glorifying wars. Then came Socrates who, impoverished, idle, walked through the streets and alleyways of Athens, speaking to politicians, poets and craftsmen, piercing their pride, examining their merits as citizens, telling them that “the unexamined life is not worth living,” that the pursuit of virtue and wisdom should come before the pursuit of anything else, and that one should not soil one’s hands in unjust public life. He went on to say, “You, my friend, a citizen of the great and mighty and wise city of Athens, are you not ashamed of heaping up the greatest amount of money and honor and reputation, and caring so little about wisdom and truth and the greatest improvement of the soul, which you never regard or heed at all?” (The Apology by Plato, translated by Benjamin Jowett).

After 30 years of war with the Peloponnesians, Athens lost to Sparta, and its valued democratic tradition was ruined by the thirty oligarchs, but the citizens of Athens were even more upset by Socrates’ new citizens’ movement. Playwright Aristophanes penned the comedy The Clouds to lampoon Socrates as someone who was fanciful, living in the clouds, and whose house was burned to the ground by his own disciples. Anytus, Meletus and Lycos, three leading supporters of democratic movements in Athens, directly accused Socrates of corrupting the youth and of impiety, and the citizens of the Athens, upon hearing Socrates’ defense, wise as it was, still convicted him of their own accord.

Zhiyong, is that the inevitable end of an idealist facing the city-state?

Of course, Athens and Sodom were different. In Athens, it could be debated whether Socrates and his new citizens’ movement should be tolerated. The debate could go on forever, and the conviction could be regretted. After Socrates was executed, the Athenians indeed repented. Anytus was exiled and then stoned to death. But in Sodom, the destination for those unyielding citizens is dim prison and oblivion by the public. Discussion will be forbidden, for the rulers of Sodom will shut you up, shut me up, and shut everyone up.

By trying Socrates for corrupting the youth, Athens in fact glorified Socrates. Sodom will not give you such glory. They will carefully choose the charges against you. When you stand trial, the part that scares them most will not make an appearance at all, and Sodom’s subjects who watch the trial will cheer: he is the thief; he is the villain “who interfered with public traffic.”

But I know that you will stand trial as proudly as Socrates. In The Apology, Socrates told the court that he was a gift from God to Athens, and if they killed him, they would not easily find a successor, and that the state, a great and noble steed but tardy in its motions, required the stings of a gadfly like himself to stir it into life.

I am God’s gift to you, he told the Athenians. But Athens didn’t understand such pride, let alone Sodom. Therefore, Zhiyong, when you are tried in Sodom, do not defend yourself against the charges they impose on you. Let them charge you, let them torture you. Do as Socrates did, choosing prison and drinking the poison the Athenians handed him, even though Criton bribed off a guard and urged his teacher to run away. They cannot try the pride of an idealist. Socrates said, after being sentenced to death, he would rather be put to death for speaking what he spoke than live by speaking what they spoke. Athenians, in so little time you earned your shame for eternity.

So, standing in the seat of the accused, defend only what we want to defend. Zhiyong, even if you face a roomful of barbarous officials, thugs and schemers whose ears are deaf, whose eyes are copper coins and whose minds are arid desert, defend only what you love – the idea of new citizens and its meaning. Sodom can reject, or fail to understand, the words of a just man, but in the future, it will surely understand the judgment of God and the wrath that roars across the sky and brings their ruin.

You are in prison this moment, on your way to trial, and I too am under house arrest. Sitting vacantly in my living room where twilight is closing in, soon to be engulfed by the night, I feel sad all of a sudden, recalling what my friend Qiao Mu once said, “the road paved by stepping stones leads afar……”

Whether in Sodom or Athens, the fate of idealists will eventually be that of the stepping stones. Though trampled over, I hope our souls, yours and mine, will remain free, unfettered, and peaceful.

Guo Yushan

July 27, 2013

GaoGuo Yushan (郭玉闪) is the head of the Transition Institute (传知行), an independent think tank in Beijing that advocates political and economic liberalization. It was recently raided and banned after Dr. Xu Zhiyong’s arrest, though it was not in any way associated with Dr. Xu. Mr. Guo is a longtime friend of Dr. Xu, and the two, along with Dr. Teng Biao (滕彪), founded Gong Meng (公盟). Among his many distinctions, Mr. Guo was a key figure in the Free Chen Guangcheng movement during Chen’s house arrest from 2010 to the time he escaped in the spring of 2012. Mr. Guo was the very person who, with a group of friends, took Chen from Shandong after his escape and delivered him, eventually, to the safety of the US Embassy in Beijing.

(Translation by


2 replies »

  1. Dear Probe,

    As citizens of the “free world”, it would be nice to hear how Bradley Manning is doing? Does he, in your opinion deserve the kind of treatment he is receiving? Maybe, it’s worthwhile to see if our nations are setting the kind of example that is exemplary for those whom we know are not free.


    On Wed, 18 Sep 2013 22:27:29 +0000

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s