On a recent Thursday evening in August, a 40-year-old MMA gym owner in Beijing named Xu Xiaodong activated his VPN, hopped over the Chinese government’s internet firewall, and began his first-ever live YouTube broadcast. He wanted to talk about the ongoing protests in Hong Kong, in which hundreds of thousands of citizens have demonstrated against mainland China’s attempts to circumvent Hong Kong’s autonomy and civil liberties. Xu looked into the camera and took a stance on the protests that few, if any, of his countrymen living on the mainland were willing to publicly take: “Hong Kong people are Chinese. I am Chinese. So I love Hong Kong,” he said. “I don’t believe that there are so many violent thugs there.”
Word of Xu’s broadcast spread rapidly throughout the Chinese-speaking world. It was moving to many in Hong Kong, who have found people from the mainland to be publicly unsympathetic at best, and viciously hostile at worst, to their struggle. The comments section under the YouTube video soon flooded with support and praise for Xu’s bravery.
Xu’s livestream didn’t go unnoticed by the Chinese authorities, who had been using Chinese state media to portray the Hong Kong protestors as members of a rabid, violent mob. Four days after the livestream was posted, state security showed up at Xu’s apartment and took him in for questioning.
Xu wasn’t fazed by this development. He’d already spent several years getting used to living under the watchful and punitive eye of the Chinese government while becoming, somewhat by accident, one of the country’s most famous dissidents. But the government’s constant attention hadn’t previously been drawn by any fiery political statements. Xu would be the first to tell you that he’s more of a troll at heart than political rebel, and he’s become a target of the state for reasons that are much more fitting of his personality: He likes to talk shit, and he likes to fight.
Since 2015, Xu has been the director, producer, and host of a lively one-man martial arts talk show called Brother Dong’s Hot Takes that he self-distributes via his various social media accounts. Each episode features Xu speaking, sometimes quite passionately, about whatever is riling him up that day. One recurring bit that initially gained Hot Takes a cult following was Xu’s profanity laced call-outs of “fakes,” or pianzi, in the Chinese martial arts world.
These callouts were inspired by what Xu calls a “bad wind” of fake tai chi masters penetrating the national consciousness. This was largely thanks to government intervention. Traditional Chinese martial arts (wushu), and tai chi in particular, are a core component of what President Hu Jintao called in 2007 the “great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation.” Since rising to power in 2013, President Xi Jinping has redoubled efforts to promote and spread “traditional Chinese culture”—which includes tai chi as well as traditional Chinese medicine (TCM)—through a battery of subsidies, policy interventions, and good old-fashioned propaganda. Last year, it became mandatory for students in southeastern China’s Fujian Province to prove mastery of 24 tai chi moves in order to graduate from high school. Only a few months ago, state mouthpiece People’s Daily announced the establishment of the “People’s Tai Chi Development Alliance,” which purports to be aimed at making tai chi “fashionable” for young people and showcasing the accomplishments of Chinese civilization to the world.
Meanwhile, grandmasters from across China’s martial arts schools were called on to hype up tai chi in the media. In a 2013 program called The Showdown Show, the famed 12th-generation Chen-style tai chi master Wang Zhanhai showed how he could harness his energy to fling off four musclebound attackers in a single movement. On another episode of the show, the 76-year-old pressure point (dianxue) master Zhang Zhenling showed up a group of skeptical, strapping young kung fu students by causing one to double over in pain with a single touch to the ribs. (Zhang then cured the humbled student by touching a pressure point in his neck.)
Xu was unimpressed by all of this. In early 2017, he started honing in on the young Yang-style tai chi grandmaster Wei Lei, who had recently come to national attention thanks to a CCTV-4 program called Real Kung Fu, in which Wei was featured performing such feats as turning the inside of a watermelon into mush without penetrating its skin and keeping a live pigeon perched on his hand from flying away through a personal force field. Xu called Wei Lei “brainwashed” and “a dumbass.” In retaliation, Wei Lei, or one of his associates, published Xu’s personal information, including his address and phone number online. Xu, enraged, flew to the southwestern city of Chengdu, where Wei is based, walked into the tai chi master’s gym, and demanded they fight right there on the spot.
Only several dozen people were present at the fight, which took place in the gym’s crowded basement, but a video uploaded the next day was seen by millions. In the video—which has since been scrubbed from the Chinese internet—Xu, bare-knuckled in shorts and hot pink sneakers, squares off against Wei, bare-knuckled and clad in a traditional tai chi outfit. After a tense couple of moments, Xu lunges forward and pummels Wei with a flurry of jabs. In less than 10 seconds the tai chi master is flat on the ground, covering his face with his arms.
Xu’s defeat of Wei Lei is now remembered as an earth-shaking event within the Chinese martial arts world. It made him a minor public figure and gained him a legion of new fans, as well as an extensive roster of enemies. According to Xu, more than 100 martial artists looking to avenge Wei challenged him in the aftermath of the fight. Xu took out a pencil and paper, ranked his challengers in order of priority, and set about in earnest on his now-famous quest to “fight fakes” (“fake” and “battle” are homophones in Mandarin). As of this writing, Xu has fought 17 of those challengers in public matches. He has defeated them all.
Because of the lack of infrastructure or regulations for such unconventional matchups, the fights often have a DIY vibe, with no ring or gloves in sight. On several occasions, Xu, who hovers around 200 pounds, has faced off against men half his size. His victories have not always gone officially recognized. After Xu’s most recent fight, in which he willingly ate a flurry of limp strikes from Wing Chun master Ding Hao before beating him bloody in front of a crowd of hundreds, the announcer declared the match a draw and concluded, “Whether it’s MMA or Chinese wushu, we can all agree that this is a victory for Chinese kung fu!”
These past two years have been the most prolific in Xu’s fight career. Up until the Chengdu match with Wei Lei, Xu had fought in only three paid matches, all in the early 2000s. From 2004 onwards, Xu—who is, by his own admission, a mediocre fighter at best—devoted his energies to developing China’s nascent MMA industry from behind the scenes. He opened his own gym, Bitu, in which he coached MMA and emceed a popular amateur fight promotion called “Fridays.” Soon enough, Bitu had opened another two locations. Business was good. The only reason he went back to fighting, he says, is that Wei pissed him off.
“If I don’t like someone, I fight them,” Xu told me the first time we met, in an empty sports bar in July. “It’s really that simple.”
Xu had rushed to the nearby city of Tianjin that day to sign a contract to fight his 18th grandmaster, Wang Zhenling of the Great Dao school of tai chi, and missed our first appointment. He apologized profusely. It was a muggy summer night, and he was sporting his signature tank top and goatee. He does not drink. Over ginger ale, he gravely recounted his “war” against tai chi. Only a glint in his expressive eyes suggested that he understood how plainly silly it was to be fighting in such a war.
Xu is a born and bred Beijinger, a fact he references often. When he gets excited, his speech slurs with the lisping Beijing dialect. His happiest early memories are of visiting his grandmother at her job as an attendant at the National Museum, which faces out onto Tiananmen Square. He remembers clearly the day in 1989 that the tanks rolled in. Xu says growing up in Beijing made him uniquely attuned to politics.
As a teenager, Xu started studying sanda, or Chinese kickboxing, the only Chinese martial art he regards as having any combat value. (Shichahai Sports School, the training center near the Forbidden City where he once practiced, has since publicly disowned him.) Around the turn of the millennium, he discovered mixed martial arts, which was trickling into China at the time via overseas returnees. He immediately latched onto MMA because of how free he found the fighting style: You could kick. You could hit someone when they were already on the ground. “I like freedom,” he told me emphatically.
Which is the root of Xu’s problems. The Chinese government would really like for him to stop his war against tai chi. As of this writing, Xu has been ordered to publicly apologize; had to pay the equivalent of USD $36,000 in fines and legal fees; had his social credit score lowered after he refused to apologize, preventing him temporarily from traveling by plane or high-speed train; had one of his gyms shut down; and seen a total of 11 social media accounts mysteriously disappear.
Despite all of this, Xu has continued to do exactly as he wants. When he was prohibited from flying, he took a 36-hour, hard-seat train all the way to Karamay, Xinjiang, in far western China, to fight the Wing Chun master Lu Gang (Xu wore clown makeup to the fight, a pre-condition, he says, for being allowed to participate). And with no way of broadcasting Hot Takes on Chinese social media, he started recording the show and sending it to a friend in America, who uploads it to YouTube.
Xu sees the continued production and dissemination of Hot Takes as a moral imperative. He becomes emotional when he talks about it. The reason he must keep broadcasting, he says, is very simple: He is telling the truth.
“What this show tells is priceless,” he told me—thinking, perhaps, of the increasingly dire financial straits his crusade against tai chi is putting him under (he is currently searching for a new apartment because he can no longer afford the rent on his current one). “If you gave me a million RMB to stop the show, I would say, ‘No.’ If you gave me 10 million RMB to stop, I would still say, ‘No.’ If you gave me 100 million RMB to stop”—here he took a beat to grin—“I would say, ‘Okay.’”
Xu Xiaodong’s gym is located in a basement facility in the middle of a parking lot in Shuangjing, an upscale residential district near Beijing’s East 3rd Ring Road. His clients are well-off hobbyists, mostly men, who come to train for fitness purposes. Every so often, an incensed tai chi master shows up at the gym’s door to challenge Xu in person, an occurrence that took Xu’s fellow trainers by surprise the first time it happened.
I visited the gym in mid-August, and despite Xu’s rapidly complicating political situation, the place bore no reflection of the turmoil that had befallen its figurehead. During a boxing class, students took two-minute turns sparring with trainers. No one seemed particularly worried about Xu. I spoke to an eight-year veteran of the gym, a plump and genial man surnamed Wang, who happened to work for CCTV, the state broadcaster. Wang said that while he did not support the violence, he was fundamentally sympathetic to Xu’s quest. “Otherwise, young people will continue to believe in these fakes,” he said.
When I entered Xu’s office he glanced at me conspiratorially and motioned me over to look at an icon on his phone. It was a VPN. I asked him why, after abstaining for so long, he had finally started using one.
He told me recent events had caused him to conclude he would never be on the right side of the law in China, no matter what he did. Not long after he signed the contract to fight Wang Zhenling, his 18th tai chi grandmaster, relevant authorities informed him that the match, or any future matches, would not be allowed to take place. This should be illegal, Xu noted angrily, but his lawyer friend had advised him that in China, the law is essentially “whatever they say it is.” And so, Xu figured, he had nothing more to lose by taking the extra step of hopping the firewall.
“What makes me angry,” he added, “is that I’ve been very careful. Everything I’ve said has been true. If I had been lying to people, sure, I can accept punishment. But I’ve said nothing wrong. I can’t understand this.”
As someone who has been living and reporting in China for five years, I was caught off guard by Xu’s belief in the power of truth and sincerity. Although he was fully cognizant of the fact that there were things he could say that would have him disappeared tomorrow—that the ruling Party had inflicted and continues to inflict grievous human rights violations on the population such as the concentration camps in Xinjiang, and that the State relentlessly censors reports of said atrocities—he never discarded the notion that the truth had some value.
Such a belief is something that’s become almost impossible to hold onto in China, where the truth has long since ceased to matter. The week I went to meet Xu at his gym, the Party had pivoted its policy toward coverage of the Hong Kong protests from the usual program of suppression to an all-out disinformation campaign. State media organs blared with reports of protester violence and a secret CIA plot. These reports left out the disproportionate brutality being inflicted by the Hong Kong police, and that a protestor had lost an eye to a bean bag round.
After we discussed his plans to livestream on YouTube that night, it was time for Xu to pitch his MMA class to a crop of prospective students. In a matter of seconds I watched him transform from the laconic, somewhat sullen man I had just interviewed into the charismatic personality I recognized from Hot Takes. He talked without pause for the next 45 minutes, weaving together a pocket history of MMA with heavy doses of autobiographical narrative and thoughts on everything from Bruce Lee to yoga. More than a dozen students listened attentively and laughed along with his jokes and exaggerated pantomime.
Watching Xu give his spiel, I thought about something he had once told me about his ambition for Hot Takes to one day become China’s “No. 1 most courageous sports talk show.” In a different place or time, Xu could easily be a titan of the sports entertainment industry. It’s easy to imagine someone with this much wit, passion, and intelligence hosting a slickly produced sports show from behind a desk. But all Xu can do in his current situation is go on smuggling his low-fi episodes of Hot Takes past firewalls and dodging government authorities who would like to see him cast out onto the street.
What really stings Xu is that he doesn’t stand to benefit from the coming expansion of MMA in China, which he worked for so long to bring about. This summer, the UFC opened a state-of-the-art training facility in Shanghai in a bid to mint a Chinese MMA star who would help the promotion win over the Chinese market. This plan already seems to be succeeding: At the third UFC China in Shenzhen this August, 30-year-old female strawweight fighter Zhang Weili triumphed over Jessica Andrade to become the first ever Chinese UFC champion. Xu, a huge UFC fan, told me he was thrilled with Zhang’s victory and the entrance of UFC into China, but he has not been called on to help promote it. He said that at the two previous UFC events in China, he paid full price for front row tickets—almost $1,000 USD—because UFC did not personally invite him.
A few hours after I left him that day at the gym, Xu went home and made the live YouTube broadcast about Hong Kong that would get him taken in for questioning. His message began in a tone of half-ironic grandeur: “It is I, Xu Xiaodong. The Xu Xiaodong who overturned heaven and earth two years ago.” Next, he thanked the state censorship organs monitoring him for their troubles. Then he said his piece about Hong Kong.
By international standards, Xu’s views on Hong Kong are extremely moderate. He does not support Hong Kong independence and regards Hongkongers (and Taiwanese for that matter) as Chinese. Yet in the dissent-paranoid environment of today’s China, publicly expressing skepticism that the reality on the ground in Hong Kong may differ from how it has been depicted in state media is tantamount to betrayal. Indeed, only one other mainland public figure has dared to express the same doubts as Xu: A 33-year-old lawyer named Chen Qiushi, whose earnest “fact-finding” broadcasts from Hong Kong—now scrubbed from mainland social media, along with his personal Weibo account—have put him in the same precarious position as Xu.
Chen and Xu have developed something of a partnership over the past several months. They recently did a photoshoot together, at Chen’s suggestion, in which the two men wore suits and mugged suavely for the camera. Xu shared the photos on his social media along with a still from the 2016 South Korean action thriller Train to Busan, which featured Gong Yoo as the handsome hero and Ma Dong-Seok as his coarse but honorable accomplice. “Korea has Ma Dong-Seok,” Xu wrote in his caption, “and China has me.” (In one of his most recent dramas, 2018’s The Villagers, Ma plays a washed-up former boxing champion who reluctantly roots out a dark political conspiracy in his small town.)
Aside from Chen, Xu has few allies; people know that publicly speaking up for someone like Xu is enough to put them or their families in danger. In a recent episode of Hot Takes, an upset Xu revealed that not a single person had stood up for him in a 450-person WeChat group after his Hong Kong statement. Still, a sizable but anonymous contingent of fans from China, Hong Kong, Taiwan, and across the diaspora have come together to help him financially. After Xu learned he would no longer be able to fight in matches for money, he finally started accepting donations from his supporters (he had previously rejected a 50,000 RMB donation from a wealthy fan) on PayPal and WeChat. Xu told me that over the past month he has already received several thousand dollars, most from donations in the range of five to ten dollars.
Earlier this month, Xu announced another way supporters could help to relieve his hurting finances. He had become the ambassador for a new Brother Dong-branded line of baijiu, a fiery Chinese sorghum spirit. The liquor purports to be 42.7-percent alcohol, a reference to his April 27 defeat of Wei Lei. “I don’t drink, but I visited the baijiu factory and I think the quality is good. Plus, it’s very manly to drink baijiu,” he said by way of endorsement on a recent Hot Takes. In the comments, fans announced their plans to buy multiple cases.
There’s an unmistakable whiff of pro wrestling surrounding Xu’s entire project. Part of this is down to the fact that he can deliver monologues like a seasoned heel; part of it is because, for as seriously as he takes his fights against tai chi masters, there’s a slapstick quality to each of them. There’s just something inherently funny about watching an aging, chunky MMA fighter stride right up to a supposed martial arts master and proceed to beat the absolute hell out of him.
Of all the absurdities that have recently defined Xu’s life, none are seemingly greater than the fact that he, a loudmouthed fighter and entertainer with objectively modest political views, has become a real symbol of dissent. But perhaps that’s not so absurd. In modern China, the simple act of being brash and unapologetic can be enough to qualify one as a true rebel.
Though the majority of Xu’s YouTube commenters come from Hong Kong and Taiwan, a vocal minority are firewall jumpers. Below his videos, they articulate the most subversive implications of his mission to fight fakes. “Beat up Xi,” reads a typical one. “The Communist Party are the greatest scammers of all,” reads another.
It’s even more common for commenters to simply see his tenacity as a ray of light piercing an increasingly dark political climate: “As long as China has people like you, China has hope.”
Xu balks at such appraisals. He believes it’s Chen, the young lawyer, who’s China’s future. As he put it in a recent episode: “Don’t pin your hopes on me. I’m just a dog drowning in a pile of dogshit.”
Lauren Teixeira (@lrntex) is a writer based in Chengdu, China.