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Tough times for writers in China

October 26, 2000

Two unforgettable summer weeks in a Beijing prison



Chinese writers face harder times. While China rushes towards an ever more market-oriented economic system, President Jiang Zemin has made it clear that he intends no change in ideology. Several scholars and outspoken journalists have lost their jobs or been warned by the government. Media have been ordered not to publish articles by a number of liberal scholars

Bei Ling, 40, is a distinguished Chinese poet and editor of the intellectual and literary magazine, Tendency. The magazine publishes literature from both independent and censored Chinese writers, and articles and interviews with foreign authors. Bei went to the United States in 1988 on a literary exchange program, and decided to stay, as times got tougher for writers at home. He is now a US resident, but remains a Chinese citizen.

Tendency is distributed to Chinese scholars and intellectuals living abroad, and about a third of the circulation is given away in China. This past summer Bei Ling was arrested in Beijing when he was in China distributing the magazine. About 2,000 copies of the magazine were confiscated. Bei Ling spent 14 days in prison before he was deported to the United States. Just a few days after his arrest, his brother, Huang Feng, was arrested for talking to the media about Bei Ling’s detention. Huang Feng is now on bail, and is forbidden from travelling outside the Beijing area for one year. He can be questioned and put back into detention at any time.

Below Bei Ling describes what happened to him in China this summer, and the impact this has had on his family.








In early October this year, I severed all contacts with my parents and my younger brother, after they strongly requested that I do so, so that they could continue with their lives in Beijing. This is a completely inhuman thing to have to do, but under the circumstances it was the only option available to us since they have to live in China’s capital, Beijing, and do not want to be plagued by constant fear and harassment, or threats of arbitrary detention and interference with their property. The helplessness and indifference I saw between the lines of their faxed letter and the tone of our conversation in my last phone call to them, which was more a pleading than an order, left me with no alternative but to obey their request.

“Your position means that the US government will express concern about you. But we are only ordinary Chinese people, with no protection, no one to rely on. We still have to live in China. Right now, your younger brother is being held hostage here because of your situation. Any single thing you do in America will have an impact on him and his survival. Your brother is now on ‘bail pending trial,’ and is subject to arrest at any time. His job and livelihood have been disastrously affected, and our situation is not much better. If you still have a conscience, and if you still remember your promise at our last brief rendezvous before your deportation, you should refrain from having any communication with us,” my parents wrote.

My parents also said that whenever they answered the phone and heard my voice on the other end, they were immediately wondering whether they should just hang up. They were afraid I might say something wrong or they might unconsciously say something which would provide evidence for the bugging third ear (a high-tech, all-hearing ear that listens out to protect the state’s image).

And my younger brother Huang Feng, besides having his mobile phone and home phone bugged day and night, was required by the Beijing Public Security Bureau to report immediately and in detail all incoming phone calls concerning me to the detective in charge, or even better, to report in writing. He was also ordered to refrain from participating in any events relating to me or Tendency. Should he hear anything about it, he should promptly report it to the Public Security Bureau. He was also requested to relay to me “warnings” and “requests” from the government and Beijing Public Security Bureau regarding my views and activities overseas. I was asked to exercise self-restraint in my opinions, so as to be more considerate about the living situation of my parents and younger brother in China.

Huang Feng is now on “bail pending trial” from August 25, 2000, to August 25, 2001. Within this period, he can be brought to the Public Security Bureau for questioning or to any place, even taken back into detention. Within this period, he is also confined to the vicinity of Beijing and is not allowed to travel elsewhere.

Therefore, as my parents put it, Huang Feng has become a hostage for me. Their pleas were also a command, that forced me to sever all communication with them, otherwise I would be a person with no conscience.

What crimes did I commit in China in the summer of 2000? My crime was literature. Accurately speaking, it was the crime of publishing literature. According to the Criminal Detention Order issued to me by the Haidian Sub-Bureau of the Public Security, my crime was “illegally printing and publishing the overseas magazine of humanism and literature, Tendency.” And the crime of my younger brother Huang Feng was merely informing and confirming my arrest and detention to the outside world. After my detention was reported by the Associated Press and The New York Times, he answered inquiries at home concerning me from Agence France Presse, The Washington Post, Reuters, Newsweek, the Associated Press, The New York Times,, colleagues from Tendency, international human rights organizations and International Pen.

He was arrested six days after I was and put in detention on charges of “spreading the news” about my arrest and detention. By arresting Huang Feng, they thought they were able to shut off all the news and conceal the true reasons for my arrest from the outside world. But to their disappointment, the news leaked out, and subsequently brought strong protests from American society and international literary circles. Only I, who was then behind bars, was not aware of these repercussions.

On the morning of August 11, 2000, I arrived in Beijing from Shanghai. After taking care of a few things, I went to my home in Hepingli District, waiting for my landlord to come to sign a tenancy agreement. In the afternoon, acting on a tip-off from the guard of the apartment building, five plainclothes police rushed into my apartment with policemen from the local police precinct, shoved me into a police jeep and took me to the Haidian Sub-Bureau. On the evening of August 12, after nearly 20 hours of interrogation, I was sent to the Qinghe Detention Center of the Haidian Sub-Bureau at 85, Longgang Road, Qinghe Town, Haidian District.

This is a huge center, which can accommodate more than 3,000 inmates. The glasses I wear for severe myopia and my shoes were taken away, and I was locked into cell No. 8 of Block No. 1, barefoot and clothed only in underwear. In total, I spent 14 days there.

The cell was about 400 square feet, divided into two halves by a corridor. The inside portion was a pool of water and a toilet area. On each side, there was a half-foot thick plastic pad for people to sleep on. At least 18 inmates, sometimes up to 25, squeezed together in this small area for eating, drinking and using the toilet.

When there were more than 20 inmates in the cell, we could not even sleep lying on one side all at the same time. Therefore we had to take turns to sleep, with at least four inmates who had to stand “on duty” for half the night. Newcomers were required to stand for whole nights at first, which we called “whole night shift.”

Every day we had to do the “sitting lesson,” which means we all sat down in a straight line with our hands holding both knees tightly and our eyes fixed on the “Rules for Prisoners” that hung on the wall. This was called “contemplating your crimes.”

In the detention center, I was beaten, discriminated against and forced to work, and my human dignity was denigrated, it was absolutely appalling. But being inside, you have to learn to accept all the violence as routine. Nearly all the violence took place inside the prison cell, initiated and tacitly agreed upon by the cell boss (officially called the “provisional cell attendant”), and physically executed exclusively by several thugs.

As far as my arrest and detention is concerned, I refused to be categorized as being there for political reasons. My crime was literature, and the freedom of publishing literature, and I do not see that as a political activity. Any attempt to categorize the punishment I received in China or freedom of publishing literature as political will inevitably weaken the already weak voice of literature in that part of the world where politicization penetrates into virtually all facets of life. I profoundly detest authoritarian systems, and I also detest politicization. Tyranny is the natural enemy of literature and my case is the proof.

In China, many reasons can be found to put a person like me into prison. Because I also do wrong things, but those are the business of God. But I will not permit my activities relating to literature and publishing literature to be considered as a crime. It is outrageous of the Public Security Bureau in Beijing, to me there is no excuse for my arrest and detention. This stupid, savage behavior incited the anger of the entire literary circle and the whole civilized community.

But such behavior brings a response: the influential media, my colleagues in literature, writers in the West and the international literary community raised their voices. There was unambiguous opposition from my long time friends, from international human rights organizations, from American politicians and from the US State Department. All these voices were essentially defending literary freedom and the freedom to publish, both measures of basic human rights.

I paid a price for this, a dear price. I not only have to thank all the voices, people and organizations mentioned above, I have to thank literature itself and my pursuit of freedom to publish. For that, I went to jail. For that, my body sustained injury. And for that, I was rescued. And from these events, a lesson can be drawn about the value and meaning of literature.




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