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.

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

This Issue

September 20, 2001