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Conscience of a Nationalist

How one of China's most intense patriots became an enemy of the state.

When I first met literature professor Guo Quan in early 2006, he expounded on the difficulty of defacing a tombstone. Guo had recently taken an ax to the grave of Wang Zhi, a sixteenth-century Chinese merchant who helped facilitate Japanese pirate attacks on Ming dynasty China. "I managed to scratch out the name and the inscription," he said. "But it took a few hours."

To reach Wang Zhi's grave, he'd stalked through the woods of Anhui province with another professor in the dead of night. Neither man knew the grave's exact location, so Guo used his knowledge of Buddhist burial practices to pinpoint possible tombs. The “aggression of Japanese ghosts," as he called it, demanded desperate measures. Wang Zhi was a traitor--if a long-deceased one--and Guo was angry.

More than two years later, that same anger has brought Guo to an unexpected place. Sidelined by a government wary of Guo's online popularity, the one-time militant nationalist transformed himself into a pro-democratic activist, starting his own democratic political party and writing angry letters about government repression. In November, Guo was detained by Nanjing security officers and held without trial, listed by Amnesty International, PEN, and others as an anti-government dissident--a strange fate for a man who once stayed up all night to deface the memory of a 500-year-old traitor.

On that first meeting, Guo seemed like an obvious subject for a piece I was writing on nationalist movements among China's youth. I had come to Nanjing to understand why Chinese young people were angry at foreigners when they could be protesting their own government. Guo, a small, tightly wound 38-year-old, was co-founder of the Greater China Anti-Japanese Alliance and an active member in other right-wing organizations. At Nanjing Normal University, where he taught, he held sway over a group of eager, impressionable students. He wrote a popular blog on Nanjing portal called “Guo Quan's Patriotic Anti-Japanese Board," and the grave vandalism had brought him national renown. “Old Guo, you are a model of a Chinese man," read a forum comment in the days following the incident. “You are my God," read another.

When we met in the faculty restaurant of the university, Guo ushered me into a small private room and ordered steamed fish, fried ribs, chicken soup, and two large bottles of beer. I asked about the nationalist movement and his mood turned jovial. Foreign aggressors like Japan were encroaching on Chinese sovereignty, he said, and Chinese young people were fed up. Not everybody was ready to be a leader, so people had turned to him. “I think I might be the Chinese Gewala," he told me. Guevara--it was a word I knew only because the Cuban revolutionary's image was everywhere in urban China that year, proffering a hip version of Communism to budding young patriots. “He died the year I was born."

And, indeed, Guo shared his hero's thirst for action. The week before he attacked Wang Zhi's grave, he penned a blog post titled “I want to join the military!" that detailed telephone conversations with literature department administrators, mocking their insistence on staid political expression. The post was accompanied by a photo of him staring into the gap between two mountains, arms stretched wide, naked except for a pair of black socks and one tennis shoe. But aside from clashes with low-level authorities, it seemed that afternoon, Guo was immune from political persecution, his fate--as an impassioned patriot in a country where patriotism is required--secure.

Even then, though, there were hints of the trouble to come. At a coffee shop the next day, there was his cryptic definition of national pride: “My friends say in the U.S. they call it patriotism when someone opposes the government," he said. “In China, you can't oppose the government because the government will kill you." Then, on MSN Messenger: “I am against Japan, but also against the lack of democracy, freedom, and human rights in Chinese society." Finally, there was what I came to recognize as a signature saying: that the Mandarin word for nationalism, minzu zhuyi, is just one character away from minzhu zhuyi, democracy. But it took government encroachment on Guo's political freedom to make the connection much more explicit.

Midway through China's economic boom, Western observers accepted as fact that the country's democracy movement is dead. And it's true: Capitalism, it turns out, does not usher in Western-style democracy. The leaders of the 1989 student protests now live in exile in foreign countries or, worse, the business world. (Veteran activist Liu Xiaobo, who was detained last week after drafting the human rights petition Charter 08, is a notable exception.) Young people are no longer pro-American. Often they're anti-. Despite all this, however, the democratic urge--the impulse to cause change in the vast government that rules China in an opaque and erratic way--is alive and well.

This has long been true on an extremely grass-roots level, in rural areas, where villagers fed up with rampant corruption and unfair land take-overs frequently riot. But lately, middle-class Chinese, with access to Internet and cell phone cameras, have become increasingly active. Over the past few years, activists have used the Internet and text messages to organize anti-government protests in cities across China, blogging and uploading videos to YouTube when the government censors media coverage of their events. And the protesters have had an impact on local governments: Protests last January in Shanghai suspended the expansion of a high-speed maglev train that would have run through a well-heeled neighborhood.

At first, Guo shared some methods with the Shanghai protesters, but little else. As they did, Guo used the Internet to build a base of supporters--in his case, frustrated middle-class, mostly male professionals. Playing to concern about what urban nationalists see as unfair benefits given to Tibetans and other minorities, Guo turned racist, urging Han pride and encouraging his followers to wear hanfu, long, stiff ancient imperial robes. In mid-2006, he took his ideology one step further, creating a forum titled “Perfected Warrior National Martial Arts Studio." By initiating discussions about how to throw a good punch, he drew recruits to a studio on the twenty-eighth floor of a Nanjing skyscraper, promising them instruction in the ancient art of battle.

I visited Perfected Warrior that fall. In one corner, a row of headless mannequins modeled Guo's collection of hanfu. Otherwise, décor was spare. I stood to one side as a graduate of Shaolin Temple coached a handful of young men in using switchblades. Guo intervened with an awkward newcomer, taking a fruit knife out of his pocket and tracing a figure eight. “Slow, slow, slow, and here." He jabbed dramatically, sinking the knife into an imaginary opponent's neck.

Guo's politics remained nationalistic at that point, but he had become a strong leader with a solid base, triggering Chinese government fears that he could harness his power for other causes. Local authorities brought him in for routine questioning. When Shinzo Abe, then prime minister of Japan, passed through Nanjing that September, Guo said public security officers detained him for several hours. The surveillance had made him paranoid, seeing spooks everywhere. He told me, contradicting his public rhetoric, to be careful when befriending Chinese people. Rather than blog his most vociferous criticisms, he sent them out, encrypted, over Skype.

In the end, all the government attention had an unintended consequence: It helped Guo's vague sentiments about political freedom blossom into full-scale revolt against the Communist government. In an unusual outpouring of public discussion last fall prompted, in part, by the coming Beijing Olympics, public figures wrote open letters to the government urging change in various areas. As might be expected, Guo wrote one making the case for a tougher policy on Japan. Less characteristically, he penned another asking Communist Party leaders to introduce democracy. “The fact is," he wrote, “whatever the goal or method of achieving it, democracy is the most simple of human activities: nothing more than choice." (For the masses, he summed up his ideas in Skype treatise #289, “The Communist Party … Should Let People Have the Right to Pick the Ruling Party.") To help the government along, he formed the China New Democracy Party, claiming, in interviews with the overseas dissident press, the support of one million members. That may be an exaggeration; then again, Guo's nationalist organizations counted a few hundred thousand members each.

Central government leaders were not amused. Under pressure from above, Nanjing Normal University demoted Guo to librarian. Guo told me police had confiscated his three laptops, along with his debit card. His blogs and political forums have since been erased, replaced by the crying panda uses for a deleted site. Ultimately, on November 13, Guo was charged with subversion of state power and detained. This is his second major detention this year--in May, he was held for ten days after criticizing the government's handling of the Sichuan earthquake--and there's no sign when he'll be released. His wife told the Associated Press that she'd been instructed to “prepare myself psychologically." His cell phone is out of service.

Like any unlawful detention, this one is shameful. But it's also foolish. As xenophobic nationalists, his followers should be a well of Communist Party support. The sudden disappearance of their charismatic leader--of their Guevara--makes democratic reforms look all the more urgent. On October 30, Guo's second-to-last Skype post reads as a retort to Premier Wen Jiabao's recent defense of China's Internet controls. In an interview for CNN, Wen had told Fareed Zakaria that, although his government implemented a few Internet controls, it wasn't afraid of free expression, and criticism was often allowed to remain on the Web. “If even my writing is investigated," Guo wrote, “I can only come to one conclusion: Your government and political system are afraid of critical opinions and ideas."

By Mara Hvistendahl