Dictatorship is a Decapitator, Whether it Tortures You or Treats You Well
On the contrasting lives of Chinese dissidents in prison.
Liu Xiaobo, 2010’s Nobel Peace Prize winner, is the only imprisoned laureate in Nobel Prize history. If no amnesty for Liu is prematurely granted, he will serve his sentence until 2020. Despite his odyssey as a dissident over the last two decades, in his famous final statement to the court, Liu said “…to underscore something that was in my June 2nd Hunger-strike Declaration twenty years ago: I have no enemies, and no hatred…I have been held at two different locations and have dealt with four pretrial police interrogators, three prosecutors, and two judges, and all of them have been reasonable and moderate in manner. They have often shown goodwill.” Liu also said that he has observed progress in prison management.
These words created much animosity among international intellectual circles. A handful of people have even attacked Liu for his capitulation to the communist regime, palliation of the cruel prison system, and betrayal of the democratic movement. One of them, the Stockholm-based writer and critic Chen Maiping, even submitted a letter of complaint to the Nobel committee, requesting they withdraw Liu’s prize.
- 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.
This kind of behavior, when not conducted out of jealousy, is certainly a misinterpretation of Liu’s “no enemies, no hatred” philosophy. Not to mention, Liu Xiaobo is a famous personality; even normal political prisoners are generally more respected in Chinese prisons. While neither the authority nor the inmates acknowledge that these people did not commit crimes, it is understood that they speak their thoughts for the peoples profit, not their own. In Liu Xiaobo’s letter to Liao Yiwu on Jan. 13th, 2000, he said:
“Compared with your years in prison, my three prison stints were pretty mild. During the first, at Qincheng, I had my own cell, and my living conditions were better than what you had to endure. Sometimes I was deathly bored, but that’s about it. In my second stint – eights months inside a large courtyard at the base of the Fragrant Hills outside Beijing – I got even better treatment. There, except for my freedom, I had just about everything. During the third – three years at the reeducation-through-labor camp at Dalian – I was again singled out for special handling. My three elite-prisoner experiences can’t compare in any way to your suffering; I probably shouldn’t even say mine were imprisonments, compared to yours.”
Treatment of dissidents differs from place to place. I recently met lawyer Teng Biao and writer Ran Yunfei, who were both arrested in 2011 during the Arab Spring. Teng was detained for 71 days, Ran for 170 days. After their release, both kept silent, not wanting to reveal the particulars of their experiences in prison. People believe that they made promises to the authority not to expose the internal situation of the detention center, but there was no deal with the police; silence is more or less a personal decision.
At 40 years old, Teng Biao has been a human rights activist since he received his Ph. D. a decade ago. With some colleagues he composed an open letter to the Standing Committee of the People’s Congress, requiring the authority to abolish the irrational “Detention and Repatriation System,” which affects the basic rights of China’s migrant population. Suggestions for the “Improvement of Protecting Human Rights in the Constitution” was another important document, which he drafted with several legal scholars. Teng also became active in the movement to rescue the lawyer Zhu Jiuhu, who had tried to help the private oil industry in Shaanxi. However, Teng’s most well-known case was a common investigation, with the blind lawyer Chen Guangcheng, into the barbaric implementation of the one child policy in Linyi. In addition, in 2010 Teng Biao founded Xingshan Research Center in Beijing to research the death penalty and other legal issues. On February 19, 2011, Teng was kidnapped by the security police. During his disappearance, no one knew his whereabouts and his family cut off contact with the outside world. Even after his release, he did not break his silence. Many months later he reappeared at the public, jointed national conference. Since October 2012, he has been a visiting scholar at Chinese University in Hong Kong.
Teng is a quiet man, eloquent and logical. He talks about the insults and torture he endured only in private circles, his emotions tightly controlled. “When you enter the prison gate, the first thing you get is slaps on the face, hundreds of times, till you have a swollen water head,” he has said. During the two-and-a-half month detention, there were three phases. In the first two weeks, he was deprived of sleep and forbidden to bathe or take a shower. Two to three men were beside him day and night in a small room. He tried to exercise, sing loudly, and recite poems but they forbade all of it. Then followed a terrible three week period, where he had to sit straight on the ground and face the wall from early morning till midnight. If he collapsed, so fell the fists and kicks on him. The last 36 days, he had to carry the shackles and irons the whole day through. “It challenges your physical limits, it is astonishing how much one can endure,” Teng concluded with a bitter smile.
The writer Ran Yunfei attracts lots of online followers through his blogs and Twitter. Although his blogs are shut down frequently, the prolific writer is like an acrobatic tumbler: If one blog is pushed down, a new one is already up and on the way. Ran is good at historical reflections. He is a knowledgeable man with social, political, and cultural commentaries that are sarcastic and incisive. As a Charter 08 co-signer, he was under residential surveillance. Like Teng Biao, he was also disappeared during the Jasmine Revolution in February 2011. The worry was that he was accused of “inciting subversion of state power.” Many believed that he would be sentenced heavily. Fortunately, Ran was released after half a year. People never really knew what happened to him during that dark period. Today, Ran is allowed to participate in international conferences and travels to Japan and the West.
“Did they torture you?” I asked him.
He shook his head, “Nothing of the like. Instead, I could read in my cell; I read several hundred books.” In the beginning, he was afraid that he would be lost forever. With the kind of accusation Ran received, ten years imprisonment is the minimum sentence. Yet, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton handed three names to the Chinese government, including Ran’s, and with this move he regained his freedom. “I cannot and will not tell people that they treated me fairly in prison; it makes me sound like I’ve kotowed to the regime.” Ran is right. It’s a crime to lock an innocent person behind bars, and not torturing him is not a virtue. Dictatorship is a decapitator, no matter if it tortures you or treats you well.