The Chinese Musician Who Chose Conscience Over Communism

October 19, 2016 Updated: October 19, 2016

NEW YORK—At 72, Xin Xiulu plays the erhu, an ancient two-stringed Chinese instrument, on the streets of Flushing, Queens, collecting crumpled bills from passers-by. It’s a far cry from the position he once enjoyed in China: a professional musician who studied at China’s Central Conservatory of Music and performed lead roles with an international touring group.

But over 25 years ago, Xin’s conscience set him on another path.

He went from respected performer to dissident in 1989, when he witnessed the brutal June 4 massacre in Tiananmen Square—and tried to help the victims.

Then living on the campus of a hospital several miles from the carnage, Xin was not one of the protesters at Tiananmen, in the country’s capital, Beijing. He simply wheeled the dead and wounded into the hospital facilities the day after the killing.

Acting on orders of high-level Chinese Communist Party leaders, the People’s Liberation Army gunned down thousands of protesting students and other civilians in Tiananmen Square and its  surroundings.

Within days, Xin was arrested in a broad police sweep for “aiding” what the state media had quickly branded a counterrevolutionary rebellion.

‘Bandit Soldiers’

Raised during the Communist Party’s rise, Xin, like many other young contemporaries, was one of its greatest advocates.

“I used to love the Communist Party and Mao Zedong wholeheartedly,” Xin said. “I was willing to have my body ground into mincemeat if it could be made into an elixir of immortality for Mao.”

(Courtesy of Xin Xiulu)
(Courtesy of Xin Xiulu)

But even prior to the events at Tiananmen and the subsequent torture and humiliation he endured in prison, Xin had already started to question the official ideological line. “In the 1980s, I was the leading band musician for the Yuan Yang Arts and Culture Troupe. This was right after the Cultural Revolution, and many Chinese people began to dislike the Communist Party.”

The massacre and his subsequent ordeals left him with no doubts.

“The soldiers were completely maniacal, shooting in all directions while laughing their heads off,” he said. “Later, these bandit soldiers beat me all over with their rifle butts.”

Xin Xiulu’s boss and the head of his musical troupe helped get him out of prison in December, but he did not escape criminal charges—evidence was concocted that he had hit a policeman—and he was forced to retire early.

A little girl gives erhu player Xin Xiulu money in Flushing, New York, on Sept. 29, 2016. The donations that Xin receives is to support jailed human rights lawyers in China. (Benjamin Chasteen/Epoch Times)
A little girl gives erhu player Xin Xiulu money in Flushing, New York, on Sept. 29, 2016. The donations that Xin receives are to support jailed human rights lawyers in China. (Benjamin Chasteen/Epoch Times)

The next year, he traveled to Hungary, which had recently freed itself from communism but still accepted Chinese visitors without the need for a visa. But the desire to see justice done nagged at him.

“I entertained the possibility that the policeman who accused me of beating him up may indeed have been beaten, that he got the wrong guy and accused me instead.” Xin returned to China in 1997.

After Xin wrote a letter of appeal to the authorities, he received no redress. Instead, his phone was tapped and he was again harassed. His two daughters were also ostracized for their father’s “crimes,” and one of them lost the opportunity to attend Peking University.

“My case is not about problems with one or two individual police officers. This is a crime committed by the Chinese Communist Party,” he said.

Tragedy in the Sea of Art

Xin is also the author of a novel titled “Yi Hai Bei Ling” or “Miserable Souls in the Sea of Art.” It is a tragic love story set in the early revolutionary period of the 1940s. Despite being lopped in half by censors, it was pulled from shelves in Beijing less than a week after publication in 2005.

“When I went to the manager of the Party-controlled Xinhua Bookstore, he told me that my book was counterrevolutionary,” he said.

Xin defended himself, saying that his book was only anti-corruption and against abuse of power, not counterrevolutionary.

The response: Any book, whether anti-corruption or anti-abuse of power, was a “counterrevolutionary book.”

(Courtesy of Xin Xiulu)

“I truly love the land and the country where I grew up,” Xin said. “But I absolutely do not love the country that is ruled by the Party’s corrupt officials. I dislike this Party-state and would rather see its demise.”

Since coming to the United States this May, Xin says he has been an active participant in the Chinese dissident scene. So far, he has donated $500 made from his erhu performances to rights lawyers in China, whom he admires for their work in protecting the disenfranchised or wrongly accused.

“These lawyers are great because instead of working on cases that could earn them a lot of money, they litigate on behalf of those who see their houses demolished,” Xin said, referring to ordinary Chinese whose property is destroyed by land developers with regime connections. “They don’t earn a single penny.”

“I am not as skillful as I once was,” Xin admits. “One reason is that I am getting old; the other is that my hands were injured when I was beaten in prison. I begin to feel pain in my hands after playing for a while.”  

Frank Fang contributed to this report