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Arrested in China

Kang Zhengguo, translated from the Chinese by Perry Link

The third day was the beginning of a weekend, and they told me that my case would have to be resolved before the end of the work day. They kept urging me to write a new statement. Since I did want to go home, I decided to relent and open the way to a solution. I deleted the two points that I had been insisting upon, and yielded to the demand that I acknowledge the crime of which I was accused: I had violated the state security law that prohibits the “production, distribution, or reading of materials that endanger state security.” This self-criticism worked. About 6 PM they announced that “supervised residence is ending at this point.”

I returned to my mother’s house in a foul mood, feeling sour and violated. The three days of detention had swept away my zest for visiting relatives. I lay on the bed and replayed for myself, scene by scene, the various political tests I had faced in my life, beginning with the “reactionary statements” I had made during my student days right through to that protest poster that I had put up after the Tiananmen Massacre and that had almost got me arrested. Like other “troublemakers,” I had over the years made more than a few specious “self-criticisms” in order to get past the interrogators. I lived in America now, and by staying there I could have ended all contact with these functionaries; but the threads that pulled me toward family and hometown would not let go.

So here I was, with no one to blame but myself, back for more—more humiliation by experts in “Chinese-style” self-criticism. It’s been several decades now, and we Chinese are stuck with the same old question: Why aren’t people allowed to talk, write, and read what they want? The Party and state won’t tolerate free expression on the part of the people they rule. The naively optimistic intellectuals recurrently hope that China will turn a corner, that this time we’re really going to get things on the right track. But then it always emerges that nothing fundamentally changes and we start over again. For people like me, writing self-criticism feels like falling into a very old rut.

During the Cultural Revolution I was sentenced to reeducation through labor for my “reactionary thinking.” Later I was exonerated, but I still suffered a recurring nightmare. In it I saw myself re-arrested and sent back to the labor team to begin serving another sentence. As the intensity of the nightmare increased, I would awake with a start. For years this dream attacked me at night, over and over, like a ghost clinging to my body. Its spell remained in force until I moved with my family to the US. Then I thought I was finally rid of it. But no. Now, here in Xi’an, it had ambushed me again, and this time in broad daylight. My three days in detention had left my family shocked and exhausted and had worried many of my old friends. Everybody was afraid that if I stayed in Xi’an longer something else might happen, and that things might get out of hand. They urged me to go back to America while I still could. So I decided to cut short my visit to my mother. I changed my air ticket to an earlier flight back to the US.

Any Chinese who gets detained during a trip home to China also normally receives “send-off instructions” just before being released. Your handlers tell you to seal your experiences inside yourself, just as you might seal exposed film inside a light-impenetrable canister. And they back this up with a threat: should you ever dare mention anything to the media, your next visit home will be even more rocky—in fact you might just forget about being allowed back into the country at all. This is the reason why, even though hundreds and thousands of people get harassed in things like “returnee interviews,” so few are willing—or dare—to tell what has happened to them once they reach the outside world.

On the day I was released, the State Security department head who had worked on me suddenly discovered that we had gone to the same school. Now she wanted to invite me to a grand banquet to celebrate the end of her department’s interrogation. At this dinner the agents’ admonitions and warnings now took on the flavor of a word game, since their duty to harass me was clearly behind them. Now they wanted me to join them in acknowledging their patriotic enterprise; it all made me feel that I had somehow become an accomplice in their mission to turn me inside-out.

The whole thing was, moreover, a fitting sign of the officially sponsored commercialism of recent years; even an episode of arresting and then releasing somebody was ending in a little orgy of corrupt consumption. Of course, the messages that got passed along amid the clinking of glasses were sharply pointed. For example, when you go back to the US, you should take care to protect the positive image of State Security; everything that’s happened here should be kept under wraps—let’s not have any loose tongues; and so on. And then some intimate advice, delivered in a voice intended to convey sympathetic feeling: your mother’s getting up there in years, remember; someday you’ll need to come back for those final duties of a filial son. The underlying message was clear enough: so long as I had reason to come back to Xi’an, they could do more to me if they wanted.

I had been given some intimidating warnings, and they were part of the reason why I held my tongue for nearly a year after returning to the US. But there were other reasons as well. The well-intentioned reproach and counsel of my friends and relatives came to be in some ways a bigger psychological problem than the intimidation tactics of State Security. Both in Xi’an and back in the US there were people—including my wife—who made fun of my naive behavior. Why spend good money to mail magazines to China? I had asked for trouble, and had ended by getting it. The root cause of my humiliation was my own stupidity. I hadn’t known how to protect myself.

At one point when the police were pressing me to admit that I had harmed China’s national security, I became exasperated: “I didn’t organize any violence. I didn’t steal national military secrets or sell any economic intelligence—in what way did I harm national security? Is national security all that fragile? A few articles criticizing the judiciary, or the passing around of some things that the authorities don’t want people to read—things like that really threaten security?” The police found my efforts to reason with them laughable, of course. Yet still, even now, I feel the need to make my point: they can look up in their little books whatever empty rule they like, but I did nothing whatever to endanger national security. If “national security” means the security of a nation’s citizens, then the state is the biggest threat to national security.

For the person who lives in a country without legal protections, under an unmoving cloud of intimidation, the best one can often do is to go along, angling for small benefits as best one can. When the price becomes prohibitive even for something like reading an overseas magazine, what other recourse does one have? If we look at my three-day detention, we see that State Security may have failed to change my thinking, but its goal of intimidation has largely been achieved. I am not afraid to mail Beijing Spring to China again, but I no longer know of anyone willing to receive it, and I no longer have the same desire to get in touch with them. The whole episode affected a good many other people besides myself. It also brought disaster down on that elderly friend of mine. I can sense that the Chinese who were hurt or even just tainted by my case feel a certain resentment toward me, and want to keep their distance. They apparently feel that I have become a serious threat to their own security.

So why my delay in writing about my experience? A gross act of persecution can elicit a direct response of indignation. That much is easy. But when you have been persecuted the people around you distance themselves from you, or criticize you, and you lose your self-confidence. It can leave you feeling helpless and frustrated, almost paralyzed, even if still full of rage. When you realize that you have caused trouble to other people, or when people close to you express disappointment at your stubbornness, your resolve to fight back starts to melt away, whether you like it or not. Last year at Christmas and New Year’s I received almost no cards or greetings from Xi’an. The detention episode had put my relations with people there into deep freeze, and had cut me off from my hometown and roots. I feel now that the place where I was born and grew up has been lost to me forever.

I have never had any interest in the kind of attention that can come from telling one’s troubles in public, and for that reason, too, I had no plan to rush into print with my story. But human rights conditions in China are worsening. Over the past year it seems to have become an “open season” on Chinese scholars—some of whom are American citizens—who return to China to visit relatives or do research. Several have been arrested and many others have canceled trips for fear of trouble.

I cannot expect that my voice by itself will do anything to improve the human rights situation in China, but perhaps others can learn something from my account about how to handle it. If you are detained, for example, be sure to try to get word to the outside world as soon as possible; don’t just hope you can quietly plea-bargain your way out. Doing so only gives the other side what it wants: the chance to use pressure in secret. And don’t go along with the other side’s encouragement to confess your mistakes or guilt in detail. You may find no alternative to signing a brief statement to get yourself released; but if the purpose of the authorities is to extract from you the very materials they need in order to nail you, then you only trap yourself by talking.

Here in the US I can speak out, but it’s like shouting at a fire from the other side of a river. The moment a Chinese person steps out of China, he or she is largely separated from the struggles of the people back home who, while lacking both rights and power, somehow hope to sweep away falsity and create a secure system that will use law to serve the true interests of everyone.

After returning to New Haven I applied for American citizenship. The terrifying and absurd experience had ruined my ties to my homeland. The poet Wei Zhuang (836-910 AD) has written:

Until you grow old, do not return home;
Going back only breaks your heart.

My own sadness might be captured by changing the first line to “Once you go out, do not return home.”

Translated from the Chinese by Perry Link

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