A year ago, after my classes teaching Chinese at Yale were over and the students had left, I set out for my old home in Xi’an, China, to visit relatives. Early in the morning on June 15, the fifth day of my stay in my mother’s house, I had a rude awakening. Before I had gotten out of bed, eight plainclothes agents of the local State Security Bureau burst in, tersely stated their purpose, and forced me to leave with them immediately.
They said they wanted me to take part in a “returnee interview”—which was a standard thing, they said, and nothing for me to be upset about. It was just that my mother’s house was not the most convenient place for a chat, so they would need to use the sedan they had parked in a corner of the compound to bring me to a more suitable place to ask a few questions. The car made a number of turns and then raced toward the guest house of the nearby Electric Power Institute. First I had breakfast with eight agents in the downstairs dining room; then they brought me up to the seventh floor to a room that had been prepared for me. From time to time I noticed other agents heading downstairs toward the dining room. It seemed as if they had moved in during the previous evening to get things ready for me, and now were just finishing their night duty. Agents kept popping in and out of the room, as if taking part in some scheduled deployment.
Their first item of business was to inspect my documents. The agents took my Chinese passport and my US green card, and said they would keep them for the time being. This little move, both they and I knew, was in fact like attaching to me an invisible leg iron. Every Chinese who goes home and gets into trouble knows that once your documents are gone, they’ve got you. Even if they let you go, you can’t move. So there I was, still groggy from sleep, under comfortable detention in a guest house.
They called it a “chat,” but it was a formal interrogation—it just started gently. In order to create a more relaxed atmosphere, they explained, they had specially recalled an old acquaintance of mine, a man who had in-terrogated me for six months after the Tiananmen events of 1989. I understood the terms of such interrogations, because I had been through them before. The questioner begins from the assumption that you are guilty of many, many crimes and that the police already know the details of all of them. He does not say what the crimes are; it is up to you to show your sincerity and earn forgiveness by confessing. The purpose of this approach is to get as much out of you as possible. If you fall for the promise that “confession brings lenience” and spill everything you know, you only get yourself and your friends more deeply into trouble. So I began by stating my own ground rules: since this was a “returnee interview,” not an interrogation, there would be no need for me to volunteer anything. Their side would have to initiate the questions from start to finish. I would answer what I could.
They began by asking about letters I had exchanged with friends in Xi’an after I had left for the West. Then they asked about my contacts in the US with Liu Binyan and Hu Ping, two well-known critics of the Chinese government. They wanted to make clear their especially profound distaste for an essay called “The Crime of Counterrevolution and the Mendacity of Dictatorship” which I had published in the Hong Kong Ming Pao Monthly in 1995 after Wei Jingsheng had been sentenced to a second lengthy prison term. But both they and I knew that none of this added up to “endangerment of national security” and that my responses were unlikely to yield much of value to them. Hence they were obliged to play their trump card, which revealed more directly why they had arrested me.
They had, they said, concrete evidence that made it necessary for them to talk to me. They had searched the home of an elderly friend of mine the day before, and had confiscated all of the letters, magazines, and newspaper clippings that I had mailed to him after moving to America. Now they had some questions: What publications had I mailed to this friend? How many, all together? To whom else had I mailed similar publications? How many? On whose instructions had I mailed these banned publications into China? And so on. So now things were coming clear: my article supporting Wei Jingsheng had sparked their interest, and their raid on my friend’s house had delivered the goods.
This elderly friend of mine was retired, lived at home, and had time on his hands. But he maintained a lively interest in public affairs, and he kept up a steady correspondence with me after I went abroad. He was always eager to learn, and wanted to use me as a way to get hold of information and opinions that were prohibited inside China. I was over fifty years old, had already been through enough political battles, and perhaps should have put him off. But I thought that, well, if I can supply the needs of an old friend for information and at the same time send some uncensored materials to China, those are things one simply ought to do. So I began to buy magazines like Democratic China and Beijing Spring, which published independent comment on Chinese society, and to mail them to China. The police specifically asked about Liu Binyan because I had given the address of my elderly friend to Liu, who in turn had mailed some writings directly to him. They had asked about Hu Ping because another friend had sent me an article that he wanted to have published, and I had sent it to Hu Ping’s magazine Beijing Spring.
After a full day of questioning, certain things dawned on me. During all that time that I was mailing materials to my elderly friend, we thought nothing was amiss because all of them got through. In fact, though, the police had been reading the mail from the beginning and had let things pass on purpose. They wanted to catch bigger fish; they would cut me some slack, let me pile up a bad record, and then deal with everything at once when I came back to Xi’an to visit relatives.
Now their day of reckoning had arrived. First they raided the home of my elderly friend and took away what they would need for their case; one of the confiscated items, as it happened, was the issue of Beijing Spring that contained the article by my friend which I had sent to the magazine. I now realized why they had asked me about Liu Binyan and Hu Ping at the beginning of the day. They wanted me to confirm and perhaps say more about matters that, from months of reading my mail, they already knew.
My “returnee interview” lasted into the evening. When it was over my handlers made it clear that I would remain on the seventh floor of that guest house while they prepared to spend the night with me.
In the morning they tightened the noose. The section chief who was in charge put on a stern face and said I would have to submit a written self-criticism. They would not let me go home until I put in writing that I admitted my crimes and promised never to mail this kind of publication again. I tried two or three drafts and each was rejected. The two main points at issue were: (1) my statement that “I viewed my mailings of these materials from the standpoint of my context overseas, where, with press freedom and legal guarantees of private correspondence, such mailings violated nothing”; and (2) my insistence that the police had not just happened to discover my mailings during their raid on my friend’s house the day before my arrest, but had long been building their case by opening my mail. This monitoring of my mail, I wrote, gave me a sense of having been entrapped.
During the entire second day, the relevant section chief and department head took turns delivering harsh warnings to me. So long as I did not delete those two items from my written confession I would continue to be held. At one point the section chief adopted a pose of offering friendly advice: even if I were right about the protracted opening of my mail, he said, this was permissible under security law. I could think what I wanted about my mail; I just mustn’t write it down in black and white. In any case, so long as I persisted in my two points, I would never pass muster with their superiors.
And sure enough, during the afternoon of the second day things escalated. They took out a document that they had prepared in advance and read me an official “summons”: within twelve hours my status would shift to that of “legal detainee.” I went to bed under that cloud.
Early the next morning, before dawn, I was suddenly awakened by one of the handlers. Half-asleep, I saw before me a security agent whom I had not met before. He was using the last moments of my twelve-hour “summons” period to read me a decision on “supervised residence.” The gist was that, from this moment on, I could be held for interrogation for up to six months; I would, moreover, be responsible for my own room and board expenses.
It was well known that the methods for persecuting people had shifted in recent years and that economic punishments now had been added to the others. I suspected that the security agents were planning a shakedown, and so refused their request that I sign my name agreeing to “supervised residence.” They responded that the decision would take effect anyway, with or without my signature.
It emerged that their entire plan to “interview” me had run into some interference. This happened because, as soon as I had arrived in the guest house, I had called home and had asked my family to notify my friends and relatives in New Haven that I had been detained. The response from the US, including the State Department, had been quick, and had quickly reached high levels in Beijing, from where, it seems, word went down to Xi’an Security to be careful. As I look back now, all those procedures about “summons,” “supervised residence,” and whatnot seem likely to have been precautionary measures that the police resorted to after their plan to hold me had run into difficulty.