The Empire Strikes Back

by Tienchi Martin-Liao    /  May 23, 2012  / No comments

China: “If the wand of the Communist Party is pointed at you, the spell of any random crime will fall on you.”

Tienchi Martin-Liao and Liao Yiwu

Left: Tienchi Martin-Liao. Right: Liao Yiwu, who has been campaigning for Li Bifeng's freedom. © Elke Wetzig/CC-BY-SA

“Literary inquisition” was an old practice that rulers used to silence those who used words to challenge their power. In Western history, one of the oldest victims may be the Roman poet Ovid (43 BC- 17 AD), who offended Emperor Augustus with the poem “Ars Amatoria.” In ancient China, the most famous case was Sima Qian (145-90 BC), who was castrated for defending General Li Ling, a man condemned by the emperor Han Wudi. After the castration, Sima Qian worked at the palace as a eunuch and started historical writing, later becoming the grand historian of China’s biographical genre.

  1. Blind Chess, a column by Tienchi Martin-Liao
  2. During the Cultural Revolution, people were sentenced to death or outright murdered because of one wrong sentence. In China today writers do not lose their lives over their poems or articles; however, they are jailed for years. My friend Liu Xiaobo for example will stay in prison till 2020; even winning the Nobel Peace Prize could not help him. In prison those lucky enough not to be sentenced to hard labor play “blind chess” to kill time AND TO TRAIN THE BRAIN NOT TO RUST. Freedom of expression is still a luxury in China. The firewall is everywhere, yet words can fly above it and so can our thoughts. My column, like the blind chess played by prisoners, is an exercise to keep our brains from rusting and the situation in China from indifference.
  3. Tienchi Martin-Liao
  4. Tienchi Martin-Liao is the president of the Independent Chinese PEN Center. Previously she worked at the Institute for Asian Affairs in Hamburg, Germany, and lectured at the Ruhr-University Bochum from 1985 to 1991. She became head of the Richard-Wilhelm Research Center for Translation in 1991 until she took a job in 2001 as director of the Laogai Research Foundation (LRF) to work on human rights issues. She was at LRF until 2009. Martin-Liao has served as deputy director of the affiliated China Information Center and was responsible for updating the Laogai Handbook and working on the Black Series, autobiographies of Chinese political prisoners and other human rights books. She was elected president of the Independent Chinese PEN Center in October 2009 and has daily contact with online journalists in China.

Another special cultural “heritage” from imperial China is the so-called “kin liability.” If a man, usually a loyal officer or intellectual, offended the emperor, both he and his relatives to the 9th degree would be beheaded. Even teachers and classmates were included. In the early Qing dynasty of the 17th and 18th centuries there were lots of kin liability cases during the reigns of emperors Yongzheng and Qianlong. The case of Zhuang Tinglong and Lü Liuliang resulted in the execution of more than one hundred people.

Shockingly, literary inquisition and kin liability are not just historical issues. In the 21st century, the empire strikes back, and the revolution devours its own children!

Last September the Sichuan writer and poet Li Bifeng was arrested. His trial was scheduled for May 8, but the worldwide protest of his arrest seems to have induced the court to postpone the trial.

One of leaders of the written protests on Li’s behalf is his friend Liao Yiwu, a recent Ryszard Kapuściński Award winner now living in Berlin. Liao Yiwu has issued an appeal asking international writers to pay attention to the injustice and call for Li’s release. The appeal is signed by over 200 people, including the Nobel laureate Herta Müller. Famous writer Ha Jin is also leading the movement.

The Sichuan police accused Li of “economic crimes;” however, Liao Yiwu says the real reason for his imprisonment is that the authorities believed Li had given Liao money to buy his way to Vietnam. Last July Liao escaped China through the Yunnan-Vietnam border after the authorities threatened to throw him in jail if an autobiography about his prison experience was published abroad. After he escaped China the book was published in Germany with great success.

The government can deny Liao’s statement but can’t deny that Li has been persecuted for decades. After the Tiananmen Massacre, he spent five years in jail because of “counter-revolutionary inciting propaganda.” In 1998 he researched a textile worker strike in Mianyan. His work caught the attention of the UN, who investigated the case. Consequently, he was sentenced to seven years in prison, charged with “economic crimes.”

In China a dissident can be accused of different crimes. The blind lawyer Chen Guangcheng, who slipped into the US embassy in Beijing, was charged with “damaging public property and hindering traffic” in 2006. He was imprisoned for four years. The artist Ai Weiwei was detained because of “economic crimes –tax fraud.” Other dissidents were accused of visiting prostitutes. If the wand of the Communist Party is pointed at you, the spell of any random crime will fall on you. The prison will be waiting. It seems that whirling a wand is the CCP’s traditional method to wipe out all the uncomfortable intellectuals or “enemies of imagination.”

Li Bifeng is only one of thousands of chosen “enemies” of the republic. He writes in one of his poems:

“In this country
we can only stay in hibernation

But winter has come too soon
….
Thus, our hairs are frozen and become gray
by the snow of years”

Read more (PDF).

Does Li, having already spent twelve years in prison on false charges, have to enter forced hibernation in his home country once again? Does he have the strength to wait for spring to wake him up? No one knows the answer.

About the Author

Tienchi Martin-Liao is the president of the Independent Chinese PEN Center. Previously she worked at the Institute for Asian Affairs in Hamburg, Germany, and lectured at the Ruhr-University Bochum from 1985 to 1991. She became head of the Richard-Wilhelm Research Center for Translation in 1991 until she took a job in 2001 as director of the Laogai Research Foundation (LRF) to work on human rights issues. She was at LRF until 2009. Martin-Liao has served as deputy director of the affiliated China Information Center and was responsible for updating the Laogai Handbook and working on the Black Series, autobiographies of Chinese political prisoners and other human rights books. She was elected president of the Independent Chinese PEN Center in October 2009 and has daily contact with online journalists in China.

View all articles by Tienchi Martin-Liao

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