Monday, May 29, 2017, 11:50 AM CST – China

Politics

Yu Jianrong

Beneath the Stage

Government critic Yu Jianrong studies China’s most sensitive issues while managing to avoid drawing too much attention to himself

Yu Jianrong

Law lecturer Yu Jianrong regularly quarrels with his students. One recent clash was over China’s controversial petition system, which Yu believes requires immediate and far-reaching reform.

“If China’s petition system were abolished, the courts’ workloads would be too excessive to handle,” the student remarked.

“If the rule of law can not be fully established in China, you will likely be the next victim,” Yu replied, with typical wry assurance.

While such exchanges are a common aspect of academic life, Yu’s students are unique, in that most of them are government officials working at different levels across the country. On the above occasion, it was a director of a lower-level People’s Court who disagreed with Yu.

“I am always trying to argue with them even before a quarrel starts,” Yu told NewsChina.

As the director of the Rural Development Institute with the the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, Yu has given lectures to some of the largest gatherings of government officials in an academic setting in Chinese history. Understandably, his outspoken views have raised eyebrows.

Opinionated

More than 10 years ago, Yu became a household name both in academia and the media for his studies of rural reform and grassroots rights protection. In 2011, he became well known after launching the Baobeihuijia, or “Baby Back Home” project, on the social media platform Weibo, China’s Twitter equivalent. Baobeihuijia was a nationwide initiative to help child beggars in China return home to their families. As head of the project, Yu, an outspoken and apparent champion of disadvantaged groups, became an overnight opinion leader, at least online.

One afternoon in late April 2015, Yu arrived at the School of International Studies at Peking University to train 50 government officials from Zigong, Sichuan Province. The 53-year-old sported black-framed glasses and a pair of grease-stained pants, with his hair left uncombed. This unkempt scholar had chosen to speak to his well-groomed audience about public protests, officially referred to as “mass incidents,” relating to forced demolition. In a strong Hunanese accent, Yu described a number of case studies, analyzing their causes and explaining what recent progress had been made in resolving such disputes.

“Do not resort to force to pull down people’s homes. Otherwise, you will pay for it,” Yu remarked to NewsChina, repeating one of the many “pet phrases” he has deployed in classrooms over the years. Another line that is remembered by many of his former students is: “I hate two things; one is the forced demolitions carried out at night by thugs, and the other is the excessive drive to maintain social stability at the expense of the public’s right to know.”

“I just want to remind [officials] that if the public’s rights are not protected, [they] will also suffer in the end.”

When talking about the participants in “mass incidents,” Yu reminds officials to take measures to address the problems faced by second-generation migrant workers living in China’s cities. Yu believes that as these groups grow up in the city, with little sense of their families’ rural roots, many of them nurse a deeply held feeling of social inferiority, which is detrimental to social stability.

Before every lecture, Yu has to make comprehensive preparations because he knows that, in his own words, he “will influence some officials.” He is also a firsthand witness to the changes in Chinese officialdom in recent years.

For example, Yu told NewsChina that on one occasion, he was invited by a newly installed provincial chief of police to give a lecture to all the department officials in that province. In his lecture, Yu lambasted the excessive use of police force in China over the years, attributing the plight of overworked officers to “pressure from higher authorities.”

After that, Yu received many letters from police officers thanking him for giving voice to their difficulties. But for Yu, it was the provincial chief of police who was most deserving of their admiration.

“He knew that I would not repeat a vacuous mantra, but still insisted on inviting me to give the lecture,” Yu said. “It indicated to me that some officials want to make a change.”

After another lecture that Yu delivered to a group of officials in an unnamed city, Yu claims the mayor fished out a cell phone and ordered that all demolition work be immediately suspended. On a separate occasion, when speaking to judges from an intermediate court in a city in Shandong Province, a court head pledged to Yu that “no matter who asks us for a favor when passing judgment, as long as a suspect has violated the law, we will show no mercy.”

Yu responded by asking, “You dare to sentence a county chief to jail, but what about a mayor?”

“We will stick to the bottom line,” the official replied.

Yu said the declaration itself marks significant progress, adding that not long ago, he criticized a higher-ranking official by name in a number of articles, only to be invited to give a lecture by that same official.

“He pretended not to have read my article and I pretended not to have written it,” Yu told NewsChina.

Challenges

Although Yu is a major advocate for the rule of law when in the classroom, he sometimes resorts to his own way of addressing problems, and in a number of cases he has taken matters into his own hands. In one example, he describes an elderly woman left homeless after her son and daughter passed away following the forced demolition of their home. This woman and her grandson came to Yu for help, and he posted an account of their story online. Only days later, the woman’s local police chief, who had previously attended a lecture by Yu, came to Beijing to assist with the negotiations. Yu hired a lawyer to negotiate on the woman’s behalf, and she ultimately received compensation of 990,000 yuan (US$160,000).

“One must always be introspective,” Yu told NewsChina. “I was promoting the rule of law, but I solved that problem in an improper way. Sometimes I, too, am helpless. In order not to impact the long-term welfare of a child, I had to act.”

Small talk in the classroom is Yu’s secret weapon, allowing him to forge a closer relationship with his students. He would talk about how he had gone from a child beggar with no hukou, China’s permanent residency permit, to a respected academic. During the Cultural Revolution (1966-76), Yu’s father was persecuted and consequently Yu, living in a village in Hunan Province, had no legal identity between the ages of six and 14. This, he claims, has influenced his character and his way of doing things. Often overcome by deep feelings of sympathy for the sufferings of ordinary people, Yu regularly goes out of his way to help them.

Yu generally earns around 10,000 yuan (US$1,612) per day for a lecture at a university in Beijing, while for outside speaking engagements he commands a fee of 30,000 yuan (US$4,800). Last year alone, Yu delivered more than 200 lectures across the country, allowing him to support his work entirely by lecturing.

“I have a courtyard in eastern Beijing called The East Study. Everyone is welcome to pay me a visit,” Yu told the class that NewsChina attended. This offer, made after every lecture, is apparently no mere courtesy – visitors, most of them strangers, stream in and out of his home whenever he is present.

In 2006, Yu leased a piece of land in Beijing’s Songzhuang area and built The East Study at a cost of 120,000 yuan (US$19,344). It has since become something of a magnet for petitioners, most of whom are victims of forced demolition. Yu tries to register and file all their documents, telling NewsChina that “I accumulate files in order to have first-hand information for the purposes of study.” Sometimes he even has to rent nearby apartments for petitioners with nowhere to live. He added a “cafeteria” to his home in September 2014 in order to offer his guests free meals, though it was later closed down by the authorities because of “safety concerns.”

Yu’s success has made him the target of criticism, with some accusing him of hypocrisy – a critic of the government who earns a living by giving lectures to government officials. Yu responds to these critics simply. “Have you ever attended my lectures? It would not be too late for you to criticize after you attend one.”

“A major reason that a growing number of government agencies are inviting me to give lectures is that I do not deliberately cater to their needs,” Yu told our reporter. “But [if I did], I wouldn’t be likely to win their respect and trust.”

Nowadays, Yu’s lectures focus on four major themes: the petition system, land reform, social development and social stability. His talks on maintaining social stability have become increasingly popular.

Yu defines himself as a social scientist who studies politics, but he would not like to be a politician - he even claims to have turned down an invitation to join one of China’s official democratic parties, and to have refused government posts.

Yu likes to describe himself as an observer “beneath the stage.” His role, he argues, is to help the “audience” to better understand the “opera,” including pointing out when the singers are off-key.

“I am a researcher,” he said. “My guiding principles are: never treat myself as a celebrity, never harbor political ambitions and never have any secrets.”

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