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Book Review: My Life in Prison: Memoirs of a Chinese Political Dissident (Jiang Qisheng)

November 16, 2011

My Life in Prison: Memoirs of a Chinese Political Dissident
Jiang Qisheng
Translated by Professor James Erwin Dew and edited by Naomi May
With a foreword by Professor Andrew Nathan and an introduction by Professor Perry Link
Rowman & Littlefield Publishers
February 16, 2012
Hardcover: 200 pages

In his customarily excellent and compassionate foreword Andrew Nathan says, “Through [Jiang Qisheng’s] writings the English-speaking reader will gain a new friend.” He notes that Jiang [born 1948] is “a vivid character, a strong self-conscious man of principle . . . .” True enough. What Professor Nathan doesn’t say is that in his ceaseless wrestling with any and all authorities, Jiang could be a pain in the neck or maybe some other part of the body. And a good thing, too, for a man in the hands of some of the most implacable security officials on the planet. More than being his friend, I hope that if I am ever in a Chinese prison with Mr. Jiang, I could be like him.

Mr Jiang’s book doesn’t inspire one with the soaring hope and exhilaration of Nobel Peace Prize winner Liu Xiaobo’s “I Have No Enemies: My Final Statement,” which Liu submitted at his trial. Liu is now serving out his 11-year sentence for “inciting subversion of state power,” the same charge that had landed Mr. Jiang in jail in 1999. Mr. Jiang is another kind of hero, gritting his teeth, insulting his jailers—with the truth—and offering no slightest concession that he is guilty of something that would not be a crime in a democracy. Take his release in 2003 after four years in three prisons, for writing and circulating the pamphlet, “Light a Million Candles to Commemorate the Souls of the Heroes of June Fourth,” (点燃万千烛光,共祭六四英魂) for the tenth anniversary of the Tiananmen killings. On the day of his release, Mr. Jiang is told that instead of driving home with his wife and friends he will be taken home in a special car belonging to the security services.

He explodes at a senior jailer: “This is ridiculous. While I’ve been in prison, I’ve thought day and night about my family. I certainly haven’t thought of the Public Security Bureau. Please tell your bosses that even if my family could not come to get me, I would rather walk home than ride in the Bureau’s car.” This happens during the SARS epidemic which Beijing tried to conceal from the world. Another officer reassures Mr. Jiang: “We are doing this for your own good. We will send a high-class car that has been thoroughly disinfected.” Mr. Jiang’s conscience and mind operate far faster than normal. “Four years ago, when I was arrested, I had no choice. I had to get into a police car. But now, having regained my freedom, why would I want to ride in one?” The guards finally back off when Mr. Jiang says, “If I can’t even decide which car I want to get into for my ride home, I might as well change back into prison clothes and go back inside.” He starts to undress. I have no doubt he would have spent another four years in prison rather than get into that official car.

The guard says, “Teacher Jiang, don’t be angry, don’t be angry. Go ahead and get in your friend’s car and go home.” Then he makes a mistake. “But when you get home, can you please not answer the telephone. . . . you’ll say the wrong thing.” Mr. Jiang rockets straight into maximum outrage. “Is it any of your business whether or not I answer the telephone in my own home?” Game, set, and match to Mr. Jiang. “They were at a loss and said no more.”

In Mr. Jiang’s prison inmates were made to crouch, look guilty, keep their hands on their heads for hours, and spend most of the day shouting out prison regulations.

He confronts the jailer: “There are fifty-eight articles in the ‘Rules of Conduct for the Reform of Criminals.’1 Tell me which article stipulates that prisoners must squat down and put their hands on their heads.” The jailer replies, “Jiang Qisheng, do you mean to challenge me?” Mr. Jiang answers, “I don’t want to challenge you, but to cover my head with my hands is something I just can’t do.” He never does.

Chinese prisons, as Mr. Jiang vividly shows, are horrible, although some are more so than others. He records every detail: two men sitting back to back over the same toilet because inmates were required to use the toilets in the same 5- to 6-minute block of time, shortages of lavatory paper, ghastly food, the stench of wet clothes that never dry because it is forbidden to hang them on radiators. Two, even three, men have to sleep on a single bunk. “What marvels,” he writes, “are produced under the leadership of the Communist Party! . . .”

His fellow prisoners admire him because of his political acts. When he is about to enter the court for sentencing they outfit him with their own best clothes, including a tie. He tells them that on the tenth anniversary of Tiananmen he stood for three hours in silent meditation and after he recites to his cellmates his “Light a Million Candles” one says, “Teacher, after we get out can I come back and be a political prisoner with you?”

Corruption, both moral and financial, is rife. Every morning the prisoners take their shabby smelly bedding off their bunks, roll them up and stuff them out of sight. They replace them with immaculate unused ones so that visitors will always have a good impression. (I remember this from the schools and factories I toured in 1972 during the Cultural Revolution. Most of us were hoodwinked.) The prisoners are allowed to put tiny amounts of money into a fund for buying tobacco and other “luxuries.” These are sold back to them at an enormous profit by the guards. “For example, a pack of Dragon brand cigarettes sells for less than two yuan outside, but the work unit sold them for fifty yuan—a better profit than reselling heroin.” One warden alone, reports Mr. Jiang, was making 2,000 yuan per month selling cigarettes.

At his trial in 1999, after a long wait, he makes his statement of innocence; it is like Liu Xiaobo’s: this is a trial of words, a “literary inquisition.” There is a burst of clapping. It is Mr. Jiang’s wife. She is bundled out, giving him another cause for written complaint. Of his wife’s applause he says, “This outburst from one delicate woman was much more golden than the so-called ‘thunderous applause’ that one reads about occurring in the Great Hall of the People on Tiananmen Square.” When he has to sign his name to documents that confirm his guilt, he adds a political complaint, which he knows will occur on the same page as the official signatures and seals.

Nor are his fellow prisoners spared his sharp tongue: when a devotee of Falun Gong is brought in, Mr. Jiang, who likes him, also gives him such a hard time that they agree to list their differences but not discuss them. Meticulously as ever, Mr. Jiang includes the list: their differences on evolution, for example, the creation of the moon, and the efficacy of meditation and special Falun Gong exercises. There are a couple of murderers in his cell, one of whom dissected his victim’s body with a chain saw. Mr. Jiang presses this man on why he did it.

Jiang Qisheng is a one-off. Perry Link describes how he helped draft Charter 08, but didn’t sign a statement of solidarity saying that if Liu Xiaobo was guilty so were the signers. Mr. Jiang said: “Why volunteer to go to prison?” Liu Xiaobo, on the other hand, did some editing of the Charter, encouraged others to sign it, and went to prison. When praised for not signing by the authorities, the irrepressible Mr. Jiang explained, “This was not to draw closer to the regime, but in essence to do the opposite, to remain in a position for maximal continuing resistance.”

In his eloquent introduction, Professor Link recounts how when Mr. Jiang returned home in 1991 after his first prison stretch, his younger brother begged him not to repeat his resistance. Jiang Qisheng replied, “If I listen to you and do as you say, then someone else will need to do the things I am no longer doing. But if that person has a younger brother who advises him, too, not to do these things, and if he, too, listens, then who is going to do them?”

This is a unique, plainly written, meticulously detailed, convincing, and painful account of principled heroism. Readers will ask themselves what they would do–repeatedly–under the uncivilized and illegal circumstances that still disfigure the People’s Republic of China.

Editor’s Note

1. Zuifan gaizao xingwei guifan [罪犯改造行为规范] {Rules of Conduct for the Reform of Criminals}, issued by the Ministry of Justice, promulgated November 6, 1990, effective May 1, 2004, ^