Ren Jianyu. The photo was taken on November 20, one day after he was freed from a reeducation center in Chongqing. Photo: CFP
About 10 days after his release from a reeducation center, 25-year-old Ren Jianyu said he was still overwhelmed by his freedom, now more precious to him than ever.
"For the first time, I so deeply understand the meaning behind that saying, 'Give me liberty or give me death,' printed on my T-shirt," Ren told the Global Times in a phone interview from his hometown in Jiangjin district, a small community facing Chongqing across the Yangtze River.
Ren, then a village official in Pengshui county, was summoned by local police on August 17, 2011. Prior to this, he had been pursuing membership in the Communist Party, and he nearly made it the month before.
He was sentenced to two years of reeducation through labor about a month later on September 23 by the Chongqing Reeducation Committee for the crime of "agitation aimed at subverting the government" by writing and reposting opinions on the Internet, for example criticizing the Chongqing municipal government's red-song campaign. The T-shirt he mentioned was also regarded as evidence to support the verdict.
Thanks to the many changes in Chongqing following the fall of its former Party Secretary Bo Xilai earlier this year, local authorities withdrew the reeducation sentence and Ren regained his freedom on November 19, nine months earlier than expected. Though his appeal against the Chongqing Reeducation Center was rejected by the Chongqing No.3 Intermediate People's Court, Ren said he will appeal all the way to the Supreme People's Court, just to prove his innocence. On November 29, Ren filed an appeal with the Higher People's Court of Chongqing.
"They only admitted that the reeducation sentence was inappropriate," said the young man who insists he did nothing wrong. "I had only hoped to see is a gradual political reform under the Chinese Communist Party's leadership … where more people help supervise the public power."
An angry youth?
Born in 1987 as an only child, Ren was one of the few from his village to get into university in 2005, and was the only college graduate in the area to become a village official on his own merits.
In July 2009, Ren started his new job as assistant to the director of the village committee with wide-eyed optimism. However, he soon discovered that working at the local level in government was not what he imagined.
"I really hoped that through my daily work I could do something good, only to learn that in most circumstances, I was too weak to change anything," said Ren.
On July 10, 2010, Ren put a retrospective blog post on his Tencent account, reflecting on his first year as an official. His discontent was clear, though his language was restrained and eloquent as he complained about the unqualified doctors at the local hospital, and criticized the unrealistic goal of increasing the annual income of rural households by 10,000 yuan ($1,590). "Our plan to boost their incomes cannot even be realized, and in the end, we doctored records to make it seem otherwise," said Ren.
A literature lover, Ren says the hands-on experience in the village committee made him reevaluate how he saw not only himself, but society as well. "I used to think that politics didn't affect me, but actually, our lives are completely bound up in them."
"I saw all those campaigns and knew they were staged, and it forced me to wonder about the reason behind it all," said Ren, adding that he then veered away from his interest in literature and began focusing on current affairs and the debate over political reform in China. One of his favorite books is Jia Guo Tian Xia (Family, Country and the World), a collection of blog posts by well-known Chinese independent scholar Yang Hengjun, who had hoped to prompt readers to think independently about democracy.
"The book had a huge influence on me, as it describes today's society in China so well and sheds light on how to improve it," Ren said.
Like many in his generation, Ren is not afraid to express his views, sometimes through sarcasm or cynicism, but he does not think of himself as an "angry youth."
"I prefer to-the-point yet mild expression. Actually, I am against very extreme expression, and to some degree, I prefer compromise," he said.
"Ren looks like an even-tempered boy, but he's absolutely a visionary, and he has many discontents over today's realities," said Pu Zhiqiang, Ren's lawyer who has focused on this high-profile case for the last seven months.
A household name
Ren had 200 fans on Tencent before being locked away, but his new Sina Weibo account had attracted nearly 40,000 followers by Thursday.
Meanwhile, the Sichuan native with a buzz cut and thin frame has become a household name thanks to the enormous media coverage of his story.
Unlike other cases in which people were sentenced to reeducation and then released early, Pu says it's the universal nature of Ren's story that has struck a chord for so many.
"It's a story about a young man from a remote village who changed his fate through education, and even became a public servant. But then he was sent to a reeducation center just because he expressed his views on things he saw no use for, like the red-song campaign, and spoke out against the problems in the current political system. Basically, what Ren has experienced could apply to almost everyone," Pu said.
Last Sunday, Ren was very happy when the interview he did with China Central Television was aired. "It's good to be under the spotlight. I feel safe," he said.
Despite his relief, reliving his ordeal to the media has been painful, but he remains steadfast in his quest. "If my story can lead to an effective discussion about eliminating the use of reeducation through labor, then I am willing to stand out," said Ren.
Back to peace
Over his 15 months at the reeducation center, Ren dropped more than 15 kilograms. But he says the biggest change the experience has caused in him is that he has more troubles today. "Life inside was awful ... They only make you more fearful, and you feel that society out there is even blacker," he said.
"Without a stable job or clear plan, I feel a bit panicky about my future," he added. Ren's grandfather wants him to be a village official again, but Ren says this hope is very slim.
"I don't necessarily want to work as a public servant again, but I still want to clear my name. Proof of my innocence is the most important thing for me," Ren said.
"But after all this uproar, I just want to go back to peace, lead an ordinary life, and just be myself," he added.