Xu Wasn’t Fazed By This Development

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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. 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, http://www.emilysnews.space/ 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. 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. Xu was unimpressed by all of this.

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. "If I don’t like someone, I fight them," Xu told me the first time we met, in an empty sports bar in July. 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. Around the turn of the millennium, he discovered mixed martial arts, which was trickling into China at the time via overseas returnees.