Ian Johnson, Learning How to Argue: An Interview with Ran Yunfei
One of China’s most outspoken public intellectuals, Ran Yunfei was detained last year after calls went out for China to emulate the “Jasmine Revolution” protests sweeping North Africa. He was held without trial for six months until last August. Interestingly, prosecutors turned down police requests for Ran to be formally charged, sending the case back to police with requests for more evidence. When police failed to come up with more evidence, he was then held under house arrest until early February.
Ran works for the government-run Sichuan Literature, where he writes often about classical Chinese. He is also the author of over a dozen scholarly books, including a meticulous history of a local temple, The Lungs of Old Sichuan: The Temple of Great Charity, which was released after he was detained last year. But it was his blogging—where he sometimes goes for the jugular, mixing humor and exaggeration—that got him into trouble. After anonymous calls were made on overseas exile Chinese websites for a Jasmine Revolution in China, Ran wrote China needed reform or would end up like the North African states that were then in turmoil. (He also has an account on Twitter (@ranyunfei) with 57,000 followers—viewable in China only with a VPN or proxy—and another blog on a permitted Chinese microblog, Sina Weibo with 70,000 followers.)
Most recently, Ran, who is 47, has been concerned with freedom of expression and what he sees as a need for a change in the country’s moral education. Born in a rural county that is now part of the city-state of Chongqing, he is a member of the Tujia ethnic group, one of China’s 55 recognized minorities. I talked to him at his house in Chengdu, in the southwestern province of Sichuan, where he has lived since going there to study literature in the early 1980s.