The First Victim on the Altar of the Evil Empire
Success for one writer means punishment for the other.
The Sichuan writer Li Bifeng is 48 years old. He has already spent one-fourth of his life in jail and now another 12 year term awaits him. After the June 4th 1989 crackdown on the democratic movement in Tiananmen Square, he was imprisoned for five years because of his “counterrevolutionary” behavior. While in prison he met his longtime friend, the poet Liao Yiwu, who was there because of his poem “Massacre” and his plan to make Requiem, a documentary about the Tiananmen incident.
- 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.
- 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.
Li went to prison a second time in 1998 because he investigated and reported about a strike in Mianyang, Sichuan Province. However, in the court indictment he was accused of economic fraud, and lost seven years of freedom in jail.
In recent years Li had became a successful businessman, but he caught the Chinese authority’s attention again after supporting some dissidents financially. Last July, when his friend Liao Yiwu escaped from the Republic and fled through Vietnam to Germany, the authority arrested Li in September and accused him of helping Liao with money to escape, although this allegation was totally groundless.
Li Bifeng’s trial, which was scheduled for this May, was postponed while Liao Yiwu started a worldwide campaign to appeal for his freedom. Meanwhile Liao received acknowledgment and fame in the West, for his literary reportage in: The Corpse Walker, God is Red, For a Song and a Hundred Songs, and Bullets and Opium, which are published in multiple languages and have gathered a broad readership. In the last two books Liao described his friend Li as a sensitive and devoted poet, who goes after his political and literary ideas without considering the consequences. Liao received the Geschwister Scholl Awards in Germany and the Kapuzinski Award in Poland, yet his success means bad luck for his friend.
Recently Liao also received the prestigious Friedenspreis prize from the German Book Trade during the Frankfurt Book Fair. At the ceremony, Liao delivered a courageous speech in which he predicted that an empire, where soldiers kill children, the basic human rights of millions are abused, and freedom of expression is impoverished, must and will fall apart. His speech raised attention and discussion in the West, but annoyed the Chinese authority, who called him mentally unstable. Four weeks later, his friend Li Bifeng was sentenced to 12 years in prison. The indictment this time was for “contract fraud.”
Li had been held in detention for 14 months and the authority wanted to incriminate him on the charges of “contract fraud,” but were not able to gather enough evidence. Now they refuse to even verify his signature on the contract that he has been accused of violating. Actually, Li would normally be sentenced to “inciting subversion of state power,” but knowing that this is not a good label for the Chinese judiciary, “economic crime” becomes a rubber stamp that passes for all kinds of accusations. Of course, corrupt officers and public servants in China have stolen billions of dollars without any legal consequences, yet poets or artists like Li Bifeng or Ai Weiwei are charged as economic criminals because of their engagement against social and political injustice. Interestingly enough, Li Bifeng’s unusually heavy sentence came right after the CCP’s 18th Party Congress. Is this a warning for all the uncomfortable dissidents in China? Twelve years is too much—not only for political, but also for economic crimes—in the empire’s judicial system. Thus, this can only be understood as retaliation: Li Bifeng paid for his friend’s bold speech abroad.
Does this gesture from China’s new leadership show their arrogance, or their inferiority complex? How can we trust the party chief and president when he says that he wants to continue to reform the opening policy of his country if the state continues to use the apparatus to suppress other opinions? The intellectuals in China do not expect much from the new government; they only humbly hope that it will not do more evil. Nevertheless, poor Li Bifeng has become the first victim on the altar of the evil empire.