|Li Baiguang with William Inboden during a trip to
Washington, D.C., in May 2006. (Photo: ChinaAid)
The abrupt nature of Brother Li Baiguang’s death was shocking news. Just half a year ago, “liver cancer” claimed the life of Liu Xiaobo out of the blue; now it has claimed the life of another good friend. It appears, to no coincidence, that “liver cancer” has become the most common cause of death in China’s dissidents.
Today, the political atmosphere in China is extremely deteriorated; there is no way to confirm if Li Baiguang died, the same way as Liu Xiaobo, of liver cancer as reported. With so much injustice everywhere in China, Li Baiguang courageously spoke out for those who were mistreated with numerous threats, stalking, illegal house arrests, and assaults by the national police.
My Initial Acquaintance with Li Baiguang on Beijing University’s campus
I first met Li Baiguang at Beijing University in 1999. At that time, I had just published my first book, Fire and Ice, and gradually friended those so-called “ambitious youth” at Beijing University, such as Xu Zhiyuan, Teng Biao, Yang Zili, and Xiao Han.
We frequently met in the dormitory, Lake Wei Ming, the Halloween Book Garden, and the Carving Time Café. Together, we experienced the forced disbandment of “Current Events Society” which was a campus club and the forced discontinuance of the campus magazine, Glimmer. We tasted the constant surveillance of the University Security Office, which was supported by the dreadful power of the National Security Agency.
During that period, maybe through Yang Zili’s introduction, I met Li Baiguang in the university dining hall, which he frequented for free meals. He had already received his Ph.D from the Beijing University School of Law and obtained a stable teaching position at Hainan University, but he was under the supervision of the national security police due to his involvement in the China Democracy Party. Eventually, he resigned from the university because of the harassment. He gave up his house and salary to move to Beijing and becoming a “Northern Drifter” with nothing.
When I met Li Baiguang for the first time, I was a bit taken aback by his appearance. He looked too rough for a Ph.D recipient, he was bald despite being in his early thirties, he had dark skin typical of a farmer laboring in a field, and his attire of a cheap suit and a white collared shirt did not match a man of his status. If you met him on the street, you could easily mistake him as a migrant worker rather than an attorney with a law Ph.D.
When I met him, he was mentally strained. When we were in public, he would be very vigilant, constantly looking around to check safety.
He told me he was once kidnapped by the secret police. During that incident, he was walking on the street, and a van suddenly stopped by the roadside. Four strong men rushed out, grabbed him, and threw him into the van. Then, the van drove away swiftly without getting any attention from other pedestrians. It seemed like a human being just vanished into the thin air.
In the van, those secret police officers humiliated him, stomped on him with their shoes, and one policeman even stomped on his face. They did not allow him to move, or they just beat him up. Although I dared not to speculate about the violence of the Communist Party, I was shocked by his description of this incident. Actually, I myself also experienced it decades later.
Why did Li Baiguang give up such an honorable and admirable university professor position for a thorny road of living under fear of the national enemy? Li Baiguang said he could not tolerate the injustice of the society. He grew up from a very poor farming family in Hunan and constantly suffered the oppression of greedy officials. In his youth, he vowed to study hard to change his destiny. His goal was not to follow the role of Yu Lian from the book Red and Black to break into the upper class, but to use legal tools to help those under-privileged (so-called) “low end” people, and that was why he chose to major in law.
He told me that when he received the admission notice from Beijing University’s Ph.D. Program, he went through a lot of struggles and even went to the top of a building to contemplate suicide, because he did not have any financial resources to study. This news shocked me; I wonder how much more pain and sorrow was buried in his thin yet tough body.
For Li Baiguang, suffering was a gift from God. “Without pressing olives into a slag, no olive oil will come out; without casting grapes into a pot, no wine will come out” (Watchman Nee’s hymn “Refining Me”). He took this gift courageously. Suffering taught him the true meaning of love and justice; he fought for love and justice in this distressed land all his life.
Brotherly Love with Brother Li Baiguang in a Fangzhou Congregation
During those years, I often discussed with Li Baiguang about the future transformation of Chinese democracy and what we can do. We sought truth and faith together, too. Almost at the same time, we realized democracy was not the ultimate ideal; democracy would not settle our destiny. All kinds of disputes, jealousies, hatreds among dissidents and intellectuals camps have shown that human nature is not trustworthy. The worship of great people is all vanity.
Li Baiguang not only used his expertise to help people by providing legal advice, but also was involved in publication, making ends meet by being a “publisher.” He had translated and published Character, Duty, and Thrift by Scottish author Samuel Smiles. These books were in high quality but not necessarily in high demand. When he considered his publications, his priority was on the quality not the popularity for sale; therefore, his publication business did not bring in much revenue.
Once, Li Baiguang told me in a mysterious way that he planned to go back to his hometown for a mining business. One of his old friends invited him to be his business partner and promised big returns so that he could help more people. I knew he was not well-versed in making money through business and advised him not to get involved in this unfamiliar territory. His honesty and integrity did not allow him to survive in this field, which is darker than coal. As expected, he returned to Beijing in a few months very depressed and reported that he did not make any money but actually lost his savings.
Li Baiguang became a “sensitive figure” in the eyes of the Chinese government before I did. Establishing a political party in China was a “counter-revolutionary crime” (later renamed “subversion of state power”). He was involved in creating an opposition party; therefore, he was viewed as a high risk figure. In 2004, Li Baiguang suffered a huge setback; he was arrested and put under “secured pending trial.”
During this pending period, he could not do anything and had more leisure time. So he came to our newly established, small Fangzhou congregation house church and worshipped with us on Sunday and attended a Bible study during the week. I was baptized only a few months earlier and was not knowledgeable about biblical truth, so we studied together and encouraged each other on this faith journey towards the light.
The Bible says: “For everyone who asks receives; he who seeks finds; and to him who knocks, the door will be opened.” Sure enough, one year later, the Holy Spirit opened Li Baiguang’s heart, which was filled with sorrow and loneliness. He requested to be baptized.
On July 31, 2005, the Fangzhou congregation held the baptism at a reservoir in Huairou, near Beijing. On that day, we departed before dawn, taking the rental bus my wife rented in the name of her employer. When we arrived at dawn, we arranged everything for the baptism and conducted it for seven or eight brothers and sisters before any visitors arrived. Those brothers and sisters put on white baptism gowns and stood in a row, surrounded by all the other brothers and sisters, and sang praise hymns together. The hymns made echoes on the mountains and water and stirred the swimming fish and flying birds.
When the baptism ceremony started, Li Baiguang was the first one to be baptized. He stepped down slowly into the cool water. The pastor held him and submerged him into the water while he faced the sky. When he got out of the water, he became the new creation, and at that moment, angels hailed him.
Afterwards, the newly baptized brothers and sisters read their testimonies one by one. Li Baiguang had the longest testimony. While he was reading, he was very emotional and trembling. He talked about his childhood in extreme poverty, his studies at Beijing University with harsh self-discipline, and his experiences of oppression and persecution during democratic movements and legal protests. His whole being was wounded deeply, but God touched him and healed him.
Many human rights attorneys, political dissidents, Tiananmen survivors, and petitioners from the village gathered at the Fangzhou congregation. They had been harassed numerous times. In one incident, the police broke in, and Li Baiguang confronted them. When the police demanded, “Show your ID card!” Li Baiguang replied, “You need to show your police ID first!” When the police said, “Photography is not allowed. I have portrait rights!” Li Baiguang replied: “Officers do not have portrait rights when on duty!” When the police said, “According to the State Council’s Religious Affairs Regulations, your gathering is illegal!” Li Baiguang replied, “The State Council’s Religious Affairs Regulations is an ordinance only; it has not been passed by the National People’s Congress, so it is not a law. The Constitution states that citizens have religious freedom. We honor and obey the Constitution, not the State Council’s Religious Affairs Regulations.” Li cited laws and was firm on his stand, leaving those law-illiterate police officers speechless.
Later, Li Baiguang put all those practical experiences into a booklet and distributed the booklet to house churches in farmer villages for free, so that they can learn how to use legal tools to defend their rights and freedom. The booklet was very helpful, and many house churches called him to express their appreciation. Once a dramatic scene occurred: when police attacked a farmer’s house church in Hunan province, the brothers and sisters called Li Baiguang right away. Li taught them on the phone how to confront the police, and they put the newly-learned skill into practice on the scene and led the arrogant and shouting police to back down.
In the spring of 2006, I, Wang Yi, and Li Baiguang were invited to attend the “Religious Freedom and Laws Seminar.” Afterwards, we were honored to meet President George W. Bush at the White House. We shared our personal testimonies, described the situation of religious freedom in China, and proposed the way Americans could promote religious freedom in China. After the meeting, President Bush gave each of us a tie clip inscribed with his name. He also gave me and Yi’s wife a cufflink. He told Li Baiguang, “You are not married yet; I will give you this gift when you get married.” Several years later, Li Baiguang married a devout sister. I wondered when he met President Bush again, did he ask for this gift?
After Li Baiguang moved to Nanjing, we rarely met. We have not met since I left China in 2012.
Li Baiguang and Tan Sitong: The Spirit of Martyrs and Critical Awareness
Li Baiguang became a martyr in a special way, which reminded me of another reformation martyr at the end of Qing Dynasty, (Tan Sitong).
Both Li and Tan came from Hunan and shared the passion, toughness, and stubbornness of the “Hunan Donkey.” Soon after his baptism, he carried a large print Bible with him wherever he went. He told me, “The only time I had security was when I carried a Bible.” He used to admire Martin Luther King, Jr., an African American human rights leader, and planned to publish his biography and books. During the editing process, he found out Mr. King had committed adultery and prostitution, and he gave up his publication plan immediately. He sternly announced, “I cannot tolerate this corrupted person!” I advised him that God used many sinners to accomplish His missions, and all of us are still hopeless sinners. We should not demand other people to be sinless, but Li Baiguang had been black and white all his life and rejected my advice.
The time of Tan Sitong was similar to China today. Tan Sitong faced the dual crisis of the collapse of China’s traditional political order and the “directional order” brought about by cultural values and a fundamental world view. That was Chinese intellectuals’ challenges in facing political, cultural, and religious crises. Tan Sitong’s martyr spirit was formed by his awareness of the world, idealistic tendency, and overcoming mindset, mixed with (Chinese philosopher) Mozi’s knighting spirit, the universal salvation of Mahayana Buddhism, and the adventurous mission mindset of a Christian missionary, and integrated into a life philosophy of “breaking through the snare” (Zhang Hao). In his Ren Xue, Tan Sitong upheld an extremely critical consciousness so that the spirit of “Ren” will be fulfilled, any exterior systems, regulations, customs, ceremonies, even theories, will hinder “Ren” and need to be overcome, to be denied! Tan Sitong’s martyr spirit and critical consciousness influenced the later China intellectuals greatly.
Li Baiguang also was a believer with a martyr’s spirit and critical consciousness. Tan Sitong sacrificed his life for the Qing Dynasty’s reformation at age 36 (Editor’s note: Tan actually died at age 33). Li Baiguang died at the early age of 49. He did not see the beginning of China’s democratization, but he will not be forgotten by history.
For the last 20 years, almost a hundred human right attorneys have joined the efforts. Li Baiguang was one of the earliest to step in, and he owned the highest degree and the richest practical experience. But he was low-key, humble, passionate, and seemed to be living in a pure and clean world. When we dined together, he usually gorged on food with no concern for taste, yet explored issues of law, politics, and faith with shining eyes. It is a pity that China has been sinking into further darkness and did not allow him to exhibit his talents but treated him as a nail in the eye, a thorn in the flesh
Li Baiguang had a zealous attitude towards Christian belief. Many lukewarm churches probably would not welcome his zeal. Whenever he listened to those petitioners who came to church to share their petitions, he always provided free legal help promptly and without any reservation. In the end, he would definitely tell them that “true justice only comes from God; believe in Him as soon as possible!” In those moments, he was not a fluent attorney, but a faithful pastor preaching God’s word.
Among all of my friends, Li Baiguang was the one living the simplest life. He lived like a puritan: disciplined, hardworking, and consistent. His briefcase was as shabby as Chen Dingnan (Taiwanese ex-Minister of Justice); his only two worn and patched white shirts had last ten years. He lived in Beijing for many years but never purchased his own house. His rental situation led him to be evicted numerous times. I wondered how the situation was after he moved to Nanjing to establish a family and to have a child. How did his sudden death leave his wife and eight-year-old child?
I thank God for leading me to meet Li Baiguang during our best time in life. We walked through a turbulent journey together, and after that God put us in different places to function for different purposes. We remembered each other, watched over each other, and prayed for each other. In a spiritual sense, we were never apart.
Now, God took Li Baiguang to be with Him, and he finally rested. Although I don’t understand God’s good plan, I can wholeheartedly tell Li Baiguang on the other side, “You have fought the good fight, you have finished the race, you have kept the faith. Now there is in store for you the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous Judge, will award to you on that day—and not only to you, but also to all who have longed for His appearing” (this is a paraphrase of 2 Timothy 4:7-8). Now, what comes after is our responsibility.