The prominent Chinese lawyer and writer Yang Maodong, better known as Guo Feixiong, is in a “critical state of health” five months into his eight-year prison term on baseless charges of “incitement to subvert state power.” Guo’s health reportedly deteriorated after he went on a hunger strike around August, causing his weight to drop nearly by half.
To many people in China, the 57-year-old Guo is a hero. Born at the start of China’s Cultural Revolution, he grew up poor in the countryside, but beat the odds to earn a spot at a prestigious Chinese university. He went on to run a successful publishing business before deciding in 2005 to become a lawyer-activist. Guo defended persecuted Falun Gong practitioners, pushed for asset transparency of Chinese officials, and is a leader of the informal activist network called the “New Citizens Movement.”
He is best known for his involvement in Taishi village, in Guangdong province, where he supported villagers who tried to peacefully rid the village of corrupt officials.
Rallying journalists, lawyers, and public intellectuals behind the villagers’ cause, Guo helped usher in a nascent movement for civil rights – or“weiquan” – in China.
In other countries, Guo’s achievements would have been celebrated. But in China, he was twice imprisoned for a total of 11 years between 2006 and 2019, and repeatedly tortured. His wife, Zhang Qing, fled with their children to the United States in 2009. After Guo was released, authorities banned him from leaving the country to care for Zhang, who was critically ill with cancer. In December 2021, the authorities forcibly disappeared Guo; a month later, Zhang passed away.
The authorities' cruel treatment of Guo is all too familiar in President Xi Jinping’s China. The “weiquan movement” provided a glimpse of a China that could have been – a more open society, one that could have moved toward genuine rule of law and with a vibrant civil society. Instead, all indicators point to it heading in the opposite direction.
But while Xi may believe he has total control over the country, it is people like Guo, whose perseverance, integrity, and insistence that “rights trump might,” that will inspire many in their struggle for a more just, and rights-respecting, China.