By Ge Xun, published: February 8, 2012
A Chinese-American activist’s kidnap.
I came to the United States to study physics in 1986 and stayed and became an American citizen. I believe in universal values such as freedom and basic human rights. I admire the best of humans wherever I see it, and I do what I do openly with nothing to hide.
My mother died at 83 on January 24, 2012, in Beijing. I flew back on the 28th for her funeral. By the 31st my siblings and I had taken care of everything and made arrangements to put my parents’ remains together.
For the rest of my stay I planned to meet a few people, among them, Ding Zilin (丁子霖), or the “Tian’anmen Mother” (天安门母亲) as she has been known. She is a retired professor, and her son, a high school student, died during the June 4th crackdown in 1989. For more than two decades, she has been working hard, against harsh and persistent obstruction by the government, to preserve the memory of the event, recover more truth, and help families of other victims. Without her own son by her side, I wished to bring her perhaps a little bit of comfort and love. I called and made an appointment to visit her at 3pm the next day.
With a bouquet I had bought on my way, I arrived outside the entrance of her residential community 40 minutes early on Wednesday, February 1. I had called to get directions for the cab driver, and wondered whether I would disrupt her afternoon nap, if she took one.
It was a sunny day but the sky was fogged by pollution. Cars were parked along the sidewalks, and not that many people were around.
At the entrance, a man in his 40s descended in front of me all of a sudden.
“Are you Ge Xun?” he asked.
“I am. What’s the matter?”
“Come with me. I have to ask you something.”
“I am sorry,” I said. “I don’t have time.”
He started pulling me. Two more guys joined him, pushing me toward a light brown sedan. Both doors on the right side were open, and a woman stood by the front. I knew then I was in trouble. I had never been in circumstances like that either in China or the US, and I didn’t know what to do. Without shouting or trying to break free, I asked to see their IDs. One of them said, “A little later.” Then I asked to call my family and the US embassy. “Not now,” I was told. I resisted a little by saying “All I want to do is to pay a visit to Teacher Ding. Why are you doing this to me?” While pushing me hard now, they kept saying, “Don’t move. Cooperate. Or it’s going be bad for you.” I was pushed into the back of the car, and all the while, I was asking to see their IDs. Inside the car, I was forced to sit in the middle of the back seat with one man on each side of me.
Still I was asking to see their IDs. The man who first approached me pulled out and showed me a little book. State Security (国安). Wang Jie (王杰). I thought, well, at least he showed me his ID. Perhaps we could be reasonable with each other. I would soon find out how wrong I was.
Now I saw, in the front, on top of the radio, a picture of me and Sheng Xue [盛雪, a Chinese Canadian journalist and out-spoken activist] taken when she interviewed me last fall in San Francisco. I had seen it before in her blog.
The car drove off. Now they wanted my cell phone. When I resisted, Wang Jie grabbed it from my right trouser pocket by force. “I borrowed it from my brother!” I protested.
All the way I kept mumbling, “How can you do this? All I want is to visit Teacher Ding!”
After a short drive, we went into a compound, but pulled out as soon as the car stopped. Another short drive, we pulled into a courtyard with buildings on three sides. When I asked where we were, Wang Jie said it was their “unit” (“我们单位”). I was led into one of the buildings and, by stairs, onto the second floor. No one was in the hallway. We entered a room. It looked like a cheap hotel with a three seat sofa, two single beds, a longish coffee table, and an old-fashioned TV set. I would learn later that there was an inner room and, beyond that, a bathroom.
I asked why they took me here. Wang Jie said to interrogate me. I had done nothing wrong, so I protested. I asked them to show their warrant, they said they would later but they never did. Throughout my forced disappearance, they never showed me the warrant, or any legal documents for that matter.
They asked me to surrender everything I had. In my bag was a camera, a recording pen, two passports (my old, expired one and the new one I got just before I left home), my wallet (with my driver’s license, credit cards, RMB and US dollar, scraps of paper with friends’ contact information). I had more cash than the wallet could hold, so I put some in an envelope (RMB3,000 and USD500). They took everything, and said they would give them back to me later.
I was thinking: Let’s get this done and get out of here quickly. Teacher Ding is still waiting for me.
I asked to call Teacher Ding, my family and the US Embassy. Again, they denied me. I was forced to sit in a small sofa further in the room.
During the entire custody, as I was to learn, I would meet five people: Wang Jie was the main interrogator, present at all the important moments, the only person who showed me his ID; a rotund driver who only appeared when driving was needed and who helped the others to control me; a female clerk who later said her family name was Pu (普). She was small and looked around 30 years old. She appeared to be writing down everything and she repeatedly browbeat me for answers. There was a short man with big eyes and I later learned his family name was Gao (高).
The last person was a tall man perhaps not yet 40. Small eyes. Name unknown. He was the man who would beat me. I will call him “the Violent Man.”
As they came in and went out, I saw there was another room across the hall with its door open. It looked like their command post. All the time there were two people accompanying me, even when I used the bathroom.
“What do you do during this visit?” The interrogation began.
I told them I came for my mother’s funeral, and now that it was done, I was going to visit friends and relatives.
He started asking about the Independent Federation of Chinese Students and Scholars in the US. It was a student organization formed after June 4th, 1989, in support of students in China and their cause. I attended the inaugural meeting in Chicago. In December, 1990, when the prominent student leaders Wang Juntao (王军涛) and Chen Ziming (陈子明) were tried in Beijing, I flew to China on behalf of the Federation to attend the trial. Because of the media attention on the cases and my trip, I was named “Person of the Week” by ABC.
I did what I did because I cared deeply about China’s human rights status. From 1991-1992, I chaired the council of the Federation. But after 1994, I withdrew my involvement due to family matters. I was not, and have never been, a partisan (not that there is anything wrong with it), nor was the Federation regarded by the Chinese government as an “organization of democratic movement” (民运组织).
When I visited China in 1997, the State Police asked me about it. They ended up telling me everything about it, because I didn’t even know who the chairman was at the time. In my subsequent visits to Beijing, they didn’t bother me anymore. In July 2009, I re-connected with some of my old friends, and because of the human rights deterioration in China, I decided to take action and do what I could to be useful.
Then the interrogaters asked who sent me to Beijing to interview Ding Zilin.
“Nobody did and it was not an interview!” I said.
In my recording pen and my camera, they found records of my recent activities, including the “Outstanding Person Award” to Teng Biao (滕彪) and Jiang Tianyong (江天勇), two courageous, widely-respected rights lawyers in China, given by the Chinese Democracy Education Foundation (中国民主教育基金会); a dinner party with the recently-exiled writer Liao Yiwu (廖亦武) in the bay area; conversations with various people about the Free Wang Lihong website (“自由荔蕻”) that I maintained; pictures and messages for the “Sunglass Portrait of Chen Guangcheng” campaign; Sheng Xue teaching me how to edit sound file, etc.
They insisted I was sent by Sheng Xue. But Sheng Xue had nothing to do my visit and she didn’t even know I was in Beijing!
They had to know how I knew Sheng Xue. So I told them.
Then they asked me about money. Where do you get so much RMB? How much are you going to give to Ding Zilin? Whose money is it? Who sent you to deliver it? Who reimburses your expenses in Beijing?
“The money is mine. My wife reimburses me, all right? I haven’t decided whether to donate some; if I do, I haven’t thought about how much and to whom. Nobody sent me.”
They asked and asked and asked, wrangling on and on and on about money. They forced me to “admit” the money in the envelope was for donation.
It had been taking so long, and I was getting more and more impatient. So I said, “I will make you a personal affidavit.”
Wang Jie said, “Write it down.”
I wrote, “The money is my own. No one sent me. I have not decided whether I will donate some or not.”
They were not satisfied. They insisted that I must write the money in the envelope was for donation. Or there would be no end of it.
This went on and on.
I gave up, and wrote what they forced me to. I said to them, “You forced me to do this; it was not of my own will.”
Then they asked me to sign and to press my finger print on it. I hadn’t done finger printing for a long time. It was absurd.
They asked what prompted me to “come back (to activism)” in 2009. I told them because the human rights situation in China was deteriorating badly, and I wanted to do something to be useful.
They asked me what other organization(s) I had joined apart from IFCSS. Any organization having to do with Tibetans overseas?
I realized they were asking about the Bay Area Chinese and Tibetan Friendship (BACTF). I joined in 2010. It’s a young organization for mutual understanding and friendship between Chinese and Tibetans in the bay area. I was elected Secretary.
“Why did you join this? Who is the Chairman? What does it do?”
I joined to learn about Tibetan culture and I cared about the human rights situation in Tibet too. And you could find everything you wanted to know in BACTF’s press releases.
As for activities, I attended the annual Tibet Day for two consecutive years. Their sand paintings (沙画) were fascinating. I also bought picture albums of the Dalai Lama. I believe in peaceful, respectful co-existence of different ethnic groups. Activities at BACTF were infrequent to begin with; I later reduced my involvement to focus on individual human rights cases in China.
It was getting late. I didn’t know exactly what hour it was without a watch. But I knew it must be sometime around midnight.
“It’s pretty late. You can make a call to your family,” said Wang Jie, handing me my cell phone. “You can only speak one sentence: simply say we need to know something from you and you are fine.”
So I called my brother. He was obviously very concerned. “Call me back in 20-30 minutes!” he said. They took the cell phone right away. Later my brother told me that he was in the middle of calling the US embassy when I called and he was disrupted. 20 or 30 minutes later, Wang asked me to call my brother again to tell him that I was not going back for the night, and I would see him tomorrow morning.
The interrogation continued. Back to the Free Chen Guangcheng website they had already asked about.
Interrogator: “What is it all about? You are the initiator, correct? Who are the members? How much money have you spent on it? Who gave you the money?”
Me: “I set it up to collect everything about Chen Guangcheng in Chinese or other languages. The purpose is to get more people to know about him, raise awareness of the plight of him and his family, and call for his freedom. It needs no money, nor did anyone give me money. It’s built on a free blogging platform. Members are netizens whom I don’t personally know.”
Interrogator: “Where did you find them? Who are they? How do you contact them? How do you direct them?”
Me: “I invited all the editors from Twitter. We’re all volunteers. Whoever sees something, as long as it concerns Chen Guangcheng, re-publishes it on our site. We don’t originate content. I am not a leader, and there is no need for us to contact each other.”
Interrogator: “That’s not possible! How can a website belong to no organization, no leader, not spending money? Impossible!”
“Believe it or not, nobody leads,” I said, thinking, Where do these people come from? Do you have to have a leader to call for freedom?
Interrogator: “All right, who are these participants? How do you find them?”
“I read tweets,” I said. “If someone is also concerned about Guangcheng, I send a tweet asking for his or her email, and then I send an invitation. That’s all.”
Interrogator: “Since you said you found them on Twitter, tell us your Twitter account and password.”
“No,” I said. “That’s my private information, I can’t tell you.”
“You must tell us.”
“No way. These days even parents won’t read their children’s journal. I am a grown man,” I said. I wasn’t worrying about the tweets—they are public anyway. What I worried most was that they would use my account to send phishing links. Then there were the Direct Messages.
“You give us whatever we ask. We get what we must get,” said the interrogator, motioning me. “Stand up, move to that side, and think about it.”
I didn’t stand up. Nor did I answer.
“Do we have to solve this by force?” said they.
“I don’t believe in violence,” I said. “I will not fight back, but I protest against what you do.”
Now the Violent Man, swearing and cursing, walked toward me on the small sofa. Wang Jie began to pull my coat. The Violent Man struck me with his fist. I raised my left arm and his fist fell there. Quickly I held my head with both hands. One fist after another, the Violent Man struck me, all on my head. He hit many times, three of them I failed to fend off, one of them hitting the back of my head. I almost blacked out. My glasses had long fallen off. Another fist hit my forehead, then another on my left temple. I fell on the floor, my left face numb, panting for air. The Violent Man and the short man name Gao began to kick me. Still I was conscious. I wanted to see how they beat me. Gao pulled my winter jacket hard, trying to cover my head with it. Suddenly I remembered the “black head cover” I had read in a number of accounts of brutality in the hands of the state police! I grabbed my jacket with all my might and threw it toward a gap on the right side of the small sofa.
A foot struck hard on the back of my right leg, giving me painful cramps. I panted lying on the floor. The room seemed to be turning and the florescent lights flashing. Pah! Pah! Pah! A figure swung in front of me. A few more kicks fell on me. Not so heavy. I thought about my bouquet, turning to see it. It was still good laying on the TV stand. I thought, After it’s all over here, I can try again to visit Teacher Ding. As my thoughts wandered, I began to utter, “I’ve got to go… I’ve got to go…”
It was like that for a long time.
“Tell us your Twitter password.”
I didn’t answer. They pressed me again. Still I didn’t answer.
Then Wang Jie said, “Okay, how about we give you a laptop, you put it in for us, and we take a look?”
“Will you let me go after that?”
So they fetched a laptop for me. My right leg was still cramping, my right hand shaking. I typed in my password. They all pored over it, reading my direct messages.
“What’s your email password?”
I told them they couldn’t get into my email—it requires two-step verification and I myself couldn’t even access it from here.
“Nonsense! We’ll get in. Just like Twitter, type the password in for us.”
When the verification number was asked, I told them my number. But they don’t seem to have broken in.
Around this time, Gao got my camera and started fiddling with it. He asked me about each picture in it, I told him as I said earlier. He asked me to write down how I got to know two people in it, especially Fang Zheng (方政). I briefly described each. They didn’t bring my recording pen to me at all for questions.
(Yaxue’s note: Fang Zheng was a college senior running away from Tian’anmen Square in the night of June 4th, 1989, and a tank chasing after the students ran over his legs in Liu Bu Kou (六部口, Six-Ministry Crossroad), west of the Square on Chang An Avenue. For 20 years after 1989, he struggled for a livelihood and a place to settle in China, and was visited upon every now and then by state police to make sure he wasn’t “making trouble.” A few years ago, he immigrated to the US, living in the Bay Area. Ge Xun helped him to settle and learn how to drive.)
After a while, Wang Jie came back in. “You have to write a guarantee about your activities in China. I dictate, you write”:
- Abide by China’s laws;
- Will not meet sensitive people;
- Will not go to sensitive places;
- Will not accept media interviews;
- Will not talk about sensitive issues in public.
Except he couldn’t define what constitutes “sensitive” in each case. “It all depends,” he said. These were the rules for when I was inside China. For overseas, there was only one:
- Will not do anything that’s damaging to China’s image.
I had tried to argue about a few things. I offered to write a separate guarantee that I would not participate in violence against Chinese government. Gao said, “Non-violence against Chinese government is unacceptable as well. Just write what we tell you.”
I wrote, signed, and pressed my finger print again. I asked to have a copy of my “guarantee.” Gao promised in the presence of the others. But when I asked for my photocopy in the morning, they said, “Who said we would give you a photocopy?”
At three or four in the morning, Wang Jie went out and, after a short while, came back with a document. All four men were in the room. It was a “Confidentiality Notification”, rather long, with the letter head of “北京国家安全局” (National Security Bureau Beijing). Inside it said something like: According to such and such articles of the Law of the People’s Republic of China on Guarding State Secrets, the interrogation was a national secret.
I wanted to laugh: Gosh, I’ve became a national secret of China.
“From when we met to when we separate,” said Wang Jie. “The entire process is a national secret. You are not allowed to tell it to anyone, not even your own family. Or you will be revealing a national secret, and will be punished severely.”
I wanted to read it through carefully. But he kept talking, I couldn’t focus, so I began to read aloud. The punishment for violation amounts to a 15-day detention and a fine of a few ten thousand yuan. I was relieved: Not a big deal, I can handle that. In the form they didn’t fill in why I was interrogated. So I asked them to. They put down “IFCSS”, “Donation to Tian’anmen mother”, “Free CGC website.” I signed and again pressed my finger print on it.
Wang Jie went out with the document, and when he came back, he told me I was to leave China that day. Then he said crap about how his boss cared about me. I would not be seeing Teacher Ding. I would not be visiting friends of my mother. And I had no choice. I protested.
Now we were going to get some sleep. Gao was soon snoring in the inner room. I laid down for a while, couldn’t sleep, and got up to have a smoke in the outer room. The Violent Man, dozing off 0n the sofa, woke up. I asked him a few questions, then he started unloading about stuff like nationalism and American conspiracy. That was too much for me. Finally I just said, human rights have no borders, and even Burma is changing.
The day broke. Traffic was picking up outside the window. Wang Jie came and we all went downstairs in the courtyard, the same sedan was waiting. Honda Accord, P-CA106. We were to go get my luggage.
At home, my brother helped me get ready, gave me some crackers to eat (I hadn’t eaten anything since they took me). On our way to the airport, before we got on the third beltway (三环), they asked for my laptop. They pulled over to get it from the trunk. It was a Chromebook without a hard drive. Everything was online. They fiddled with it for a while and said they had never seen it before. All along, we drove past other cars with screaming sirens.
At the airport, they pulled up at the curb. “We still have to check your laptop,” they said. I grabbed it and said, “No!” They tried to pull me into the car. I resisted. The Violent Man kicked hard on my right thigh. I fell on the ground, clutching my laptop. They kept kicking me, taking the laptop, and pushed me into the car. A few armed police came over, and they flashed their cards to them. “Do you want your things or not?” They threatened me. “Do you want to stay a few more days with us?”
“I protest!” was all I could say.
Wang Jie and the Violent Man took my luggage and left, leaving me with my bouquet and Gao and the fat driver in the car. After a while, Gao received orders and took me to the terminal building. I was in pain and had to walk slowly. Gao suggested we eat something. We stopped at a café, and I ordered a coffee and a sandwich. I didn’t have any money, so he paid for it.
While sitting, I said I had wanted to visit Chen Guangcheng in Shandong. Gao said, no way, you wouldn’t be able to leave Beijing. Then we met Wang Jie at the airline desk. At the security check, he finally gave back all my belongings with all my pictures and recordings deleted. He also gave me a scrap of paper with an email address on it. “Email us first next time you visit,” he said.
Here is the email: firstname.lastname@example.org, and I’ll help them publish it here.
I went in. It was 11:30am, February 2, my 21-hour nightmare ended. The flight was at 1:40pm. I asked someone to take a picture of me with my bouquet in front of E26.
Before taking off, I tweeted: “On board UA888 to SF, waiting to take off, 2 days before schedule. Had a terrible experience.”
(Translated by Yaxue Cao)