Xiao’s dedication to promoting freedom and democracy, whether in cyberspace or in reality, is a true testament to what a person can accomplish with passion and determination.
Early Life in the Shadow of Communism
Xiao Qiang was born in China to Chinese peasants who lived during the closing years of Mao Tse Tun’s Communist regime. His early life, as a result, was riddled with hardship and poverty. Many lived in fear during these times because of the fact that anyone who opposed the government was either incarcerated or killed.
In spite of the harsh environment in which Xiao grew up, his parents instilled in him a love for his fellow countrymen which proved very strong many years later. Even at a young age, Xiao showed potential for greatness through his achievements in school, which his parents worked hard for him to attend.
Even in his younger years, Xiao was already involved in several human rights endeavours. Fuelled by love for his countrymen, he participated in many extra-curricular activities that enabled him to reach out to less-fortunate members of his community and lend a helping hand. Xiao’s exposure to the suffering of others also opened his eyes to the horrors of Communism and the ways the government tried to control the people.
Xiao later said in an interview [regarding his views on China’s Communist regime]:
“The Chinese Communist Party regime is trying to force people to accept that it didn't happen the way it really happened and that the government did something for the interest of the Chinese people, and it's also better not even to talk about it.”
After graduating from high school, Xiao entered the University of Science and Technology of China to study theoretical physics. While at the university, Xiao took an interest in teaching after realizing that many of his countrymen were deprived of education as a form of oppression, due to the belief of Communist authorities that educated people would reject the Communist rule. Xiao excelled in his academics at the university, and earned his Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees in 1986.
Xiao decided to continue his studies in the United States, where he enrolled at the University of Notre Dame to study Astrophysics. During his final year at Notre Dame, Xiao witnessed the terrible incident in China that is now known as the “Tiananmen Massacre.” In 1989, a large group of protesters in Tiananmen Square were attacked by the Chinese military, resulting in numerous deaths and injuries.
Life after the Tiananmen Massacre
As Xiao saw everything on television, he felt uneasy – he could not stand the fact that his countrymen had been killed simply for going public with their grievances. At that moment, Xiao made a decision that would forever change his life and career: he chose to go to China to help his countrymen. Soon enough, after finishing school and earning his Ph.D., Xiao flew home to China, uncertain of what lay ahead:
“The first time I saw that picture on TV was when I was still in America, a Ph.D. student doing a physics experiment in a field. I saw what happened on the street with a young man standing in front of tanks. It took a while for that picture to sink in, because hours later I took off on an airplane on my way back to China. I wanted to do something, anything I can, to help my country and my people.”
Upon arriving in China, Xiao stayed with a friend while searching for the person which he called the “tank man,” who was the central figure of the Tiananmen Massacre. Seeing how the protest-gone-wrong made a strong impact on the international community, Xiao became even more determined to fight for his countrymen’s freedom from the oppressive Communist regime.
Xiao recalled his return to China in an interview:
“I arrived in China, and I was hiding at a friend's house, my friends with tears trying to stop me from going to Beijing, trying to convince me to get out of China again because it's too risky. It's this image of the Tank Man that came clearer and clearer in my mind and stronger and stronger, to say, this is what a human being can do with the face of human freedom and dignity in front of this violent power.”
Campaigning for Human Rights
Upon discovering his new calling in life, Xiao decided to become a full-time human rights activist and began working with human rights organizations, both in China and in the United States upon returning the following year. Two years later, Xiao was named the Executive Director of “Human Rights in China,” a non-governmental organization which focused on promoting the release of many Chinese political prisoners and improving Chinese freedoms. Xiao also served as the Vice Chairman of the World Movement for Democracy’s steering committee.
Throughout the 1990s, Xiao became one of the most active and vocal supporters of democracy and freedom in China, and rose to prominence for his efforts. In 2001, Xiao received the MacArthur Fellowship, a prestigious honor given to those who “show exceptional merit and promise for continued and enhanced creative work.” Xiao’s inspiring campaign also earned him a spot in the book “Soul Purpose: 40 People Who Are Changing the World for the Better,” and he was made a Visiting Fellow of the Santa Fe Institute the following year.
Many years later, he recalled:
“In 1995 we published a full list of those the Chinese government labelled rioters. These are the people who one way or another confronted the martial troops during those weeks. They were given the heaviest punishment. Their names were almost forgotten if we don't dig them out, because they're not intellectuals; they're no longer dissidents; they're not even students. Most were absolutely peaceful, and their courage and actions were no less than the person who stood in front of the tanks.”
Battle for the Chinese Internet
The internet’s rising popularity opened unlimited possibilities for the Chinese people to air their grievances and comment on their country’s political state; but the government, which realized its potential to open the minds of future generations, was never far behind.
In a later interview, Xiao had this to say regarding the government’s efforts to erase the memory of the massacre from the Chinese people:
“Just look how hard the Chinese authorities are trying to wipe out this memory. Temporarily they had some success among the Chinese younger generation, among the certain part they can control, but they're trying to make people completely forget what happened, completely forget if ever there was a Chinese man who stood in front of tanks. But in the long run, they are on the losing side. This memory prevails. The pictures are everywhere - through the Internet, through the satellite TVs. The Chinese have known about their heroes, and this hero will inspire the Chinese again in the future battle for freedom.”
Having seen the vast potential of the internet, Xiao began focusing his attention on state censorship and control of the internet, and began to research how to enable his countrymen to map political discourses by developing programs to break through government censorships in China, which Xiao dubbed “Chinternet.”
Establishing “China Digital Times”
By the end of 2002, Xiao passed the mantle of leading the “Human Rights in China” to have more time to research ways to expand the freedom to obtain and share information on the internet. This led to the founding of “China Digital Times,” a bi-lingual news website dedicated to giving open information regarding Chinese news, especially posts which were blocked or deleted by state censors.
“China Digital Times” has grown to become one of the largest news websites in China, releasing more than one-hundred posts per day. Not only that, but the site has also become popular in other countries. According to Alexa.com, a well-known website ranking service, the visitors of “China Digital Times” were from over one-hundred countries worldwide. Due to its incredible rise to success, the Chinese government decided to block the website in order to control the information that was being shared. In spite of this, Xiao continued to run the site, along with students and various contributors from around the world.
Working With the “Open Net Consensus” Forum
In 2006, Xiao was significant in the establishment of the “Open Net Consensus” forum, which led to the development of global principles of freedom of expression and privacy which were adopted by many of the world’s top internet companies – including Yahoo!, Microsoft, and Google – as well as many human rights and civil rights organizations. The forum received so much support from the global community that, two years later, the process led to the establishment of the “Global Network Initiative.”
Aside from working as an activist, Xiao has also been able to fulfill his dream of being a teacher. Since 2003, Xiao has been an adjunct professor at the University of California, Berkley, first in the Graduate School of Journalism (2003 - 2011) and more recently in the School of Information (2012 - present). He is also the Principal Investigator for the “Counter-Power Lab,” a research group established by UCB’s students and faculty which focused on the free flow of information on the internet and the technologies which make it possible.
Looking back at the beginnings of Xiao’s activism, we see that no matter how the truth is suppressed or concealed, it always prevails, as long as there are people who are willing to fight (like the “tank man” whom Xiao admires so much), and those who will never stop promoting freedom of information:
“That ultimate spirit of freedom will last longer than the strength of tanks and machine guns. Where is Hitler's Nazis? Where is the former Soviet Union? Where is Suharto's Indonesia or Pinochet's Chile? They're all gone, and the Chinese Communist Party and its dictatorship will be gone. The men standing in front of tanks will stay. That's what this picture stands for me.”
Organizations and Programs Supported
- China Digital Times
- Global Network Initiative
- World Movement for Democracy
- Human Rights in China
Awards and Achievements
- 2001: Conferred the MacArthur Fellowship
- 2002: Made a Visiting Fellow of the Santa Fe Institute
- 2003: Included in the book “Soul Purpose: 40 People Who Are Changing the World for the Better”