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Ren Bumei, August 2, 2016
In 2005, when Hu Shigen was serving the 13th year of his 20 year prison sentence for forming the Chinese Free Democratic Party, he was awarded that year’s Outstanding Democracy Activist Award by the California-based Chinese Democracy Education Foundation. This is an excerpt of a speech given by exiled dissident Ren Bumei (任不寐) titled “Hu Shigen and the Highest Aspirations of Our Age” (《 胡石根与我们时代的精神高度》), upon accepting the award on Hu’s behalf. Hu, among the first four of the July 9, 2015 detainees to be indicted, is being put through a show trial today (August 3, Beijing Time) in the Tianjin Second People’s Intermediate Court. This is our first post in a series about Hu Shigen. — The Editors.
I’m grateful for the trust and confidence placed in me by Hu Shigen’s family and friends that allowed me, unworthy as I am, to share the honor bestowed on Mr. Hu. As a matter of fact, I can hardly represent Mr. Hu to say anything to the jury or the public. He’s spent 13 dark years in prison, and this award will add little to his suffering or glory. Instead, it is an opportunity for us. So today, I’d rather speak as an independent intellectual, recognizing the value of Hu Shigen’s existence for our time, and what it symbolizes for China’s cause of freedom.
Mr. Hu Shigen was born in the countryside of Nanchang City, Jiangxi Province, on November 14, 1954. His father, extremely impoverished, died when Hu was five — after putting up for adoption the three youngest of seven children. Hu Shigen didn’t begin his schooling until he was nine years old, when he enrolled in the Shitou Street Elementary School in Nanchang. As the oldest boy, at age 16 Hu began working at the Jiangxi Automobile Manufacturing Factory to support the family. In 1979 he passed the national college entrance exams to become a student at Peking University in Beijing. From 1979 to 1985, Hu Shigen studied at PKU, majoring in Chinese language (中国语言专业).* After graduate school, he was assigned to a teaching position at Beijing Language College (now Beijing Language and Culture University). He was quickly promoted to be an associate professor and vice department chair. He would have lived as a comfortable professor, but the arrival of the Tiananmen Movement and the June 4th massacre changed his life forever.
Hu didn’t exhibit much political passion during the “soul-racking 56 days” of protest and repression. But it was in the post-Tiananmen period, when droves of student leaders and participants like myself were fleeing Beijing, telling of our escapes at every opportunity, and the entire country was shrouded in terror, that Hu Shigen came into his own.
Thus, June 4, 1989, became a dividing line. Those who continued to resist in the midst of the terror lock-down were the real political heroes of China. The manner of Hu Shigen’s resistance was regarded by many as radical. I don’t know until this day whether this was a scholarly, rational assessment, or just a cover for cowardice. Hu Shigen initiated the Chinese Free Democratic Party (中国自由民主党), the Chinese Progressive Alliance (中华进步同盟) and the Chinese Free Workers’ Union (中国自由工会) with Wang Guoqi (王国齐), Wang Tiancheng (王天成), Kang Yuchun (康玉春), An Ning (安宁), Liu Jingsheng (刘京生), Chen Wei (陈卫), Chen Qinglin (陈青林), Xing Hongwei (刑宏伟), Gao Yuxiang (高玉祥), Zhang Chengzhu (张承珠), Xu Dongling (许东岭), Zhao Xin (赵昕) and many more. They printed, posted, and mailed thousands of fliers promoting freedom and democracy, condemning dictatorship, and calling for a redressal of the June 4th Massacre.
They were planning to rain down fliers on Tiananmen Square from a remote-controlled airplane on the third anniversary of June 4. But their plans were leaked, and on May 28, 1992, Hu was arrested as the “principal organizer of a counter-revolutionary ring.”
Those who were tried with him told us how, in the fascist court, he roared thunderously, like a lion. We learned from eyewitnesses that he and his accomplices adopted a no-compromise, no-cooperation stance in court, and that he and Wang Guoqi, Wang Tiancheng, and Chen Wei, even shouted “Long Live Freedom and Democracy!” and “Down with the Chinese Communist Party!” Even today I still feel a quiver when I imagine the scene. What gives us pause is this: Why are these commonsense convictions still so shocking and unnerving?
Of course no one was more shocked by such resolve than the authorities. At the end of the “trial,” Mr. Hu Shigen was sentenced to 20 years in prison for “the crime of organizing a counter-revolutionary ring” and “the crime of counter-revolutionary propaganda.” He and his peers were among the few democracy activists to receive such lengthy sentences in the post-June 4 years.
In 1995 Mr. Hu Shigen was sent to Beijing Second Prison to serve his term. That prison became notorious because of him. He fasted on June 4 every year to commemorate the massacre and the dead. For nine years he was locked up in a brig cell (禁闭室) for “rejecting reform” and “inciting disturbances.” Because of police brutality, his hands and feet are permanently crippled. This year The Washington Post interviewed John Kamm of the Dui Hua Foundation. According to Mr. Kamm, the Chinese government told him that Hu Shigen was not qualified for parole based on his attitude toward reforming himself. So Mr. Hu Shigen is continuing his one man defiance of the state.
I agree with the assessment of others: Hu Shigen is a prominent political prisoner that few know about. Even though over 20 people across China were thrown in jail in the case of the “Chinese Free Democratic Party,” and it has been declared the biggest “counter-revolutionary ring” since 1989, the case has received little media attention, and few have paid attention to Mr. Hu Shigen’s conditions. Early last year, a friend googled “胡石根” and found only 600 or so results.
Just as the prophets of the Old Testament said: misfortunes doubles down on those who were chosen to be the light and the salt, and put through tribulations. Hu Shigen and his like are not only the enemies of tyranny, they have also been forgotten by our times and rejected by their contemporaries — in particular by their dearest loved ones. The latter is so destructive that it resembles the work of Satan. Zhao Xin, a close friend of Mr. Hu Shigen, vividly recalled how Hu was slashed by his wife with a knife, eleven slashes in all, for not listening to her demands that he cease his activities. The marriage fell apart after 12 years, and he has met his daughter only once over the years since.
Having spent 13 years in prison, he has developed health conditions that have never been effectively treated, such as hepatitis B, lumbar disc herniation, rheumatoid arthritis, and migraines. On October 17, 2004, his older sister Hu Fengyun wrote to the prison authorities voicing her concern about his health. On December 9, 2004, his younger brother Hu Shuigen wrote me that his health had been deteriorating rapidly and he was afraid that Hu Shigen might die in prison. He called on the international media and human rights groups to “save” Hu Shigen.
In May last year, I met someone in Zhengzhou who was a “criminal” in the same case as Hu Shigen. That was when I began to learn of his story, and I was shaken to the core. While I was ashamed of myself, it was also the first time since 1989 that I felt so proud of China: in this society of victims of political disaster, we have Hu Shigen. I hugged this friend and bid him goodbye, determined to speak out for Hu Shigen.
I don’t mean to create a Hu Shigen myth, for the story of Hu Shigen is already a myth of our times.
Hu Shigen seems to be the post-Tiananmen Wang Weilin — but he’s not. That photograph of Wang as The Tank Man hangs on the office walls of numerous political activists around the world — but no one has heard of Hu Shigen. And yet, Hu Shigen is the Wang Weilin of the post-Tiananmen era. Hu Shigen, also, both is and isn’t the Václav Havel of China. After the June 4 crackdown, China’s intellectuals placed their hopes in a Havel-like figure, and yet no Chinese care to mention the Havel of China. Hu Shigen is also the Lin Zhao after Lin Zhao, the young women executed in custody during the Cultural Revolution, after a prison sentence of 20 years for two poems she wrote. And yet he’s not that, either. At a time when everyone is tearfully searching for Lin Zhao, Hu Shigen has assumed the same suffering, and the same propensity to shock the soul as she — and yet no one has written a word about him. In the peculiar age we live in, not only has Lin Zhao become a hero (which is as it should be), those who memorialize her have also become heroes (which is also of course as it should be), but Hu Shigen is the post-Lin Zhao Lin Zhao. Hu Shigen is also the Sophie of China — but also not. In China Sophie’s Choice has become a code word for the misery of the Cultural Revolution, in ways parallel to the misery of the Holocaust. Hu Shigen, on the other hand, is right now being tormented by his own choice, yet is absent from all this lofty discussion. Yet, Hu Shigen is the Sophie of China. Hu Shigen is China’s Aung San Suu Kyi — but also not. Aung San Suu Kyi received the attention and support of the world, including the adulation of China’s intellectuals — yet Hu for over a decade has not received an ounce of similar respect. But all the same, Hu Shigen is China’s Aung San Suu Kyi.
Hu Shigen has also fallen into a spiritual prison that’s been built around him — this is the shame of our entire generation of “public intellectuals.” The fact that they are not even ashamed of this makes it all the more shameful. Chaim Weizmann, the first president of Israel, lamented in a famous speech: “When the historian of the future assembles the black record of our days, he will find two things unbelievable: first, the crime itself; second the reaction of the world to that crime. He will sift the evidence again and again before he will be able to give credence to the fact that, in the twentieth century of the Christian era, a great and cultivated nation put power into a band of assassins who transformed murder from a secret transgression into a publicly avowed government policy to be carried out with all the paraphernalia of State. He will find the monstrous story of the human slaughterhouses, the lethal chambers, the sealed trains, taxing the powers of belief… But when that historian, overwhelmed by the tragic evidence, sets down the verdict of the future upon this savage phenomenon, unique in the annals of mankind, he will be troubled by still another circumstance. He will be puzzled by the apathy of the civilized world in the face of this immense, systematic carnage of human beings…”
But allow me alter those famous words for our use: “When the historian of the future assembles the black record of our days, he will find two things unbelievable: first, the Hu Shigen case itself; second, the fact that this age produced a such a ceaseless number of outstanding public intellectuals in China. He will sift the evidence again and again before he will be able to give credence to the fact that, in the twentieth century, a nation that has produced so many public-spirited intellectuals, has put power into a band of assassins who transformed violence and imprisonment into a publicly avowed government policy to be carried out with all the paraphernalia of State — and where matters of such great import never became the topic of open discussion among the country’s intellectuals. He might find that the story of the persecution of Hu Shigen, for establishing the Chinese Free Democratic Party, taxes the powers of belief. But when that historian, overwhelmed by the tragic evidence, sets down the verdict of the future upon this savage phenomenon, unique in the annals of China, he will be troubled by still another circumstance. He will be puzzled by the apathy of China, international human rights organizations, and public intellectuals, in the face of this immense, systematic persecution of Hu Shigen.”
*Hu Shigen was a college classmate of Hu Chunhua (胡春华), the Chinese Communist Party Politburo member and current Party Secretary of Guangdong province. According to Mr. Wu Renhua, the researcher of the 1989 Tiananmen Movement, who shared the same bunk-bed with Hu Shigen in graduate school, since his release in 2008, whenever Hu Chunhua attended class reunions, Hu Shigen was excluded.
Ren Bumei is an exiled Chinese dissident living in France.
Yu Shiwen Hunger Strikes in Protest at Two Year Detention Without Trial For Holding Zhao Ziyang Memorial
China Change, May 3, 2016
Shortly before June 4, 2014, ten citizens in Zhengzhou, the capital of Henan province, were arrested for holding a public memorial for Zhao Ziyang (赵紫阳), the late Communist Party leader who died under house arrest in 2005. Zhao’s crime was to show sympathy for students in the 1989 Tiananmen pro-democracy movement. The memorial was held in the open fields of China’s Central Plains, not far from Zhao’s hometown; now, all participants but Yu Shiwen (于世文) have since been released.
Mr. Yu was indicted on February 11, 2015, for “provoking disturbances.” But he hasn’t been sentenced, and is instead being kept in deplorable conditions as his health rapidly worsens. Both Yu Shiwen and his wife Chen Wei were college students in Guangzhou in 1989 and got involved in the democracy movement that took China by storm.
On March 9, 2016, Yu wrote an open letter to Ren Kai (任凯), the lead judge of the court in Zhengzhou, where his case was supposed to be tried, confronting his abuses and cowardice. Yu vowed: “I’ll hold you responsible for this for the rest of your life. You’ll be pursued by me forever, to the very ends of the earth.”
On March 18, Yu was told that his trial had been postponed for the third time, supposedly approved by China’s Supreme Court.
On April 1, Yu’s lawyer Ma Lianshun (马连顺) submitted a complaint against the presiding judge and three other judicial personnel.
“The law doesn’t say who you can or can’t hold memorial services for,” the complaint said. “Moreover, Hu Yaobang (胡耀邦) and Zhao Ziyang were both former leaders of the Party and state, and made great contributions to the reform and opening of China. When Zhao Ziyang died, he was cremated at the Babaoshan revolutionary cemetery. Why can’t Yu Shiwen, who shared the same hometown with Zhao, memorialize the latter’s death? Why all of a sudden is it a matter of picking quarrels and provoking trouble?”
The argument continued: “None of the defendants [referring to the judges] independently exercised their judicial authority. They did not scrupulously follow the constitution and the law as required in China’s Judge’s Law. Judicial cases must be founded in the facts, the law must be the criterion for judgement, cases must be handled impartially, and judges must not bend the law to favor their associates or other officials. Refusing to exercise proper judicial judgement, detaining Mr. Yu for two years with the clear knowledge that he was innocent of the crime, and refusing to promptly exercise judicial supervision over procuratorial power as required by law—all of this, according to Article 399 of the Criminal Law, constitutes a crime.”
On April 28 Yu Shiwen’s wife Chen Wei published an open letter to the president of the Supreme People’s Court Zhou Qiang (周强) titled “A Captive Who’s Neither Been Tried, Sentenced, Nor Released,” (《一名不审不判不放的被羁押者》) in which she wrote: “The procedures under which this case was heard are shockingly preposterous, and even the Supreme People’s Court played a special role in how it was handled.”
Chen wrote that every time the Guancheng District Court of Zhengzhou city postponed the trial, it provided Yu Shiwen’s lawyer with a letter saying that it had received the approval of the Supreme People’s Court for the “postponement.” Each postponement was for three months. But the court refused to give Yu’s lawyer an explanation of the reason for the postponements, and also refused to provide them the authorization documents from the Supreme People’s Court.
“Just like that, my husband became a non-person, a lonely prisoner that no one was responsible for. His fate was simply ‘set aside’ in this inconceivable fashion. His future, family, happiness, and career—all was taken away. His life was frozen, given over to an indeterminate ‘postponement.’”
“During the nearly two years he has been held captive like this….in a tiny cell about 30 square meters, curling up with a dozen other prisoners in a long bed with little room to move around and only occasional yard time. You can imagine the torment and helplessness he suffers!”
“For my own part, every day is spent enduring bottomless anxiety. Yu Shiwen suffers high blood pressure, cerebrovascular disease, and in late 2012 he suffered a serious stroke. He suffered another stroke shortly after he was detained, and spent four months in the detention center hospital. My mother-in-law, 86 years old, is sick from worrying about her son. I can’t help but worry that she won’t live to see her son again.”
On May 2, the lawyer met with Yu Shiwen again, who had been fasting for nearly a week in protest against his treatment. Though extremely weak, Yu said he’s going to resist until the end—to use his death as protest, if need be. He said: “Tell my friends to take care! This is how I’m leaving!”
By Wang Yaqiu, published: June 4, 2015
Liu Xiaobo (刘晓波)
In the spring of 1989, Dr. Liu Xiaobo left Columbia University where he was a visiting scholar and went back to Beijing to take part in the democracy movement. In Tiananmen Square, he became a leader and a mentor, drafting open letters, giving speeches and leading a hunger strike. Liu Xiaobo was instrumental in preventing further bloodshed by negotiating with the troops and persuading students to evacuate the Tiananmen Square in the early hours of June 4th.
After the crackdown, Liu was identified by the Chinese government as one of the instigators of the “turmoil” and jailed for two years. After being released in 1991, Liu published articles and gave interviews, urging the Chinese government to redress its actions in cracking down the protest and the grievances of the parents whose children were killed. He also drafted petitions to advocate for rule of law and democracy in China, and he called for dialogues between the Chinese government and the Dalai Lama.
In May 1995, he was arrested and held without charges for six months. In October 1996, he was sentenced to three years of “reeducation through labor” (劳教), a form of arbitrary administrative detention, for “disturbing social order.”
In the early 2000s, Liu wrote a large quantity of articles, published three books, and became the director of the Independent Chinese PEN center, a writers’ organization promoting free expression. At the same time, he was subject to surveillance and harassment.
In 2008, Liu was arrested for coauthoring Charter 08 (零八宪章), a manifesto calling for democratic reform in China. About 300 Chinese intellectuals signed the Charter initially, and all of them were later interrogated and threatened by the Chinese government. In December 2009, a Beijing court sentenced Liu to 11 years in prison for “inciting subversion of state power.”
Liu is the recipient of the 2009 PEN/Barbara Goldsmith Freedom to Write Award, the 2010 Alison Des Forges Award for Extraordinary Activism, and the 2010 Nobel Peace Prize. Liu is currently incarcerated in Jinzhou Prison (锦州监狱) in Liaoning Province. His wife Liu Xia (刘霞) has been held under house arrest since the announcement of the Nobel Prize.
Liu Xianbin (刘贤斌)
Liu Xianbin, a Sichuan native, was a student at Renmin University in Beijing when he took part in the pro-democracy protests in Tiananmen Square. After the crackdown, Liu continued to organize activities until in 1991 when he was sentenced to two years and six months in prison for “counterrevolutionary propaganda and incitement (反革命宣传煽动罪).”
After being released in 1993, Liu quickly resumed activism. He penned essays and petitions, campaigned for the release of other dissidents, and helped establish the China Democracy Party, which has been outlawed since 1998. As a result, Liu became a target of frequent house raids and interrogations. In 1999, Liu was given a 13-year prison term for “inciting subversion of state power (煽动颠覆国家政权罪).”
Liu was released in 2008. Once out of prison, Liu continued to write articles criticizing the Chinese one-party system, advocated for human rights cases, and organized gatherings to discuss political issues. Liu was also a signatory of Charter 08.
Liu was once again detained in June 2010 and, in March 2011, he was sentenced to 10 years in prison, again, for “inciting subversion of state power.” Liu has since been held in Sichuan Province’s Chuanzhong Prison (川中监狱).
Chen Wei (陈卫)
Chen Wei was a high school friend of Liu Xianbin and a student at Beijing Institute of Technology in 1989. For his role as a student leader, he was imprisoned after the Tiananmen movement until January 1991.
Chen was arrested again in 1992 for commemorating the Tiananmen Massacre and for organizing the China Freedom and Democracy Party. He was charged and sentenced to five years in prison for “counterrevolutionary propaganda and incitement.”
After he was released in 1997, Chen continued to organize democratic activities. He was the literary editor of Suining Culture (遂宁文化报), a small publication in his hometown, which was later shut down for publishing news about the banned Nobel Literature Prize laureate Gao Xingjian (高行健). Chen was also a signatory of Charter 08.
In 2011, a Sichuan court sentenced Chen to nine years in prison for “inciting subversion of state power.” The conviction was based on the essays he had penned for overseas Chinese-language websites. Chen Wei is currently jailed in Nanchong (南充), Sichuan. The Chinese authorities prohibited his wife and their daughter from leaving the country.
Zhao Changqing (赵常青)
In 1989, Zhao Changqing was a history student at Shaanxi Normal University in the northwestern city of Xi’an. On May 23 that year he came to Beijing for the first time to join the student protests in Tiananmen Square. He was one of the leaders of the Autonomous Student Union of Non-Beijing Universities (外地高校学生联合会) in support of the movement.
After the crackdown, Zhao was held in Qincheng Prison in Beijing for four months. Zhao said that his life-time commitment to advancing democracy in China stemmed from his experience in Tiananmen Square and Qincheng prison (秦城监狱).
After he graduated from college in 1992, Zhao became a high school teacher. In 1997, he wrote an open letter to the Chinese government urging political reform. In 1998, Zhao campaigned in the election of local people’s representatives as an independent candidate. He was soon arrested and sentenced to three years in prison for “endangering state security.”
He was released in March, 2001. In 2002, he again drafted an open letter to the 16th Communist Party Congress calling for political reform, and he collected nearly 200 signatures. Zhao was later arrested and sentenced for “inciting subversion of state power.” He spent five years in prison until 2007.
In April 2014, a Beijing court sentenced Zhao Changqing to two and a half years in jail for his involvement in the New Citizens Movement. Zhao is currently serving his sentence in Weinan Prison (渭南监狱) in Shaanxi province. His wife and his toddler boy were forced to move out of their rental apartment due to police pressure on their landlord.
Chen Xi (陈西)
In 1989, Chen Xi was a 35-year-old administrative worker at Jinzhu University in Guiyang, the capital of Guizhou Province in southwestern China. He had been an active member of local salons that discussed political ideas. During the Tiananmen Movement, Chen Xi established the Patriotic and Democratic Union in Guiyang, in solidarity with students in Beijing. For that he was jailed for three years.
In 1995, three years after he had been released, he was arrested again for organizing the Guizhou branch of the China Democracy Party. A year later, a Guiyang court sentenced him to ten years in prison for “organizing and leading a counterrevolutionary group.”
After Chen was released in 2005, he continued to promote democracy, human rights and rule of law in China. He and several other Guizhou-based activists established the Guizhou Human Rights Forum, which was later declared an “illegal organization” by the authorities. Chen was also a signatory of Charter 08.
In November 2011, after announcing his intention to run for a seat in the local People’s Congress, Chen was detained. A month later, Chen was handed down a ten-year sentence for “inciting subversion of state power.” The conviction was based on dozens of articles Chen had written for overseas websites.
Chen is currently held at Xingyi Prison (兴义监狱) in Guizhou Province. According to his wife, Chen has been suffering from chronic diarrhea and other ailments. He has not been allowed to write letters with family and friends.
Zhang Lin (张林)
Zhang Lin graduated from Tsinghua University in Beijing in 1983. In 1989, while living and working in his home province of Anhui in southeastern China, he organized and led local citizens to participate in the democratic movement that was quickly spreading beyond Beijing. Zhang was arrested on June 8 and sentenced to two years in prison.
After Zhang was released in 1991, he organized several underground groups to promote democracy and human rights. One of those groups was the Labor Rights Protection Union, for which he was sentenced to three years of “reeducation through labor” in 1994.
In 1997, after his release, he came to the United States and became an active member in the overseas Chinese democratic movement. However, when he returned to China in October 1998, he was arrested upon arrival and later given another three years of “reeducation through labor.”
In January 2005, Zhang was detained after returning from a failed attempt to attend a memorial service for the deposed Chinese leader Zhao Ziyang (赵紫阳). In August, a court in Anhui sentenced Zhang to five years in prison for “inciting subversion of state power” and the conviction was based on his online writings and interviews he had given to overseas radio broadcasts.
In February 2013, Zhang’s 10-year-old daughter was taken out of school in Hefei one day by police without his knowledge. The school later rejected her on the ground of school jurisdiction. Netizens from around the country traveled to Hefei, demanding that the girl be allowed to resume school. Zhang Lin was accused of organizing these protests. In September 2014, Zhang was sentenced to three and half years in prison for “gathering a crowd to disrupt public order.”
Zhang is currently incarcerated in Tongling Prison (铜陵监狱) in Anhui Province. Zhang’s two daughters now live in the Untied States, thanks to the help of Ms. Reggie Littlejohn, the president of Women’s Rights without Frontiers.
Li Bifeng (李必丰)
In 1989, the 25-year-old poet Li Bifeng was elected the president of the Chengdu Youth Autonomous Committee. He organized protests and mobilized local residents in Chengdu and Mianyang, cities in Sichuan province, to support the nation-wide democracy movement. He was subsequently sentenced to five years in prison for “counterrevolutionary propaganda and incitement.”
After being released in 1994, Li became a labor activist, advocating for workers’ rights. Li provided critical information about labor protests in the 1990s to foreign media and human rights organizations. In 1998, he was sentenced to seven years in prison on dubious charges of “fraud.”
In 2011, Li was arrested again because the authorities suspected him of financing the escape of his friend Liao Yiwu (廖亦武), a dissident writer and also a participant in the 1989 movement, who had fled to Germany months earlier. In 2012, Li was given a 12-year prison sentence for “contract fraud” which his lawyer and family believed was groundless. The sentence was later reduced to 10 years. Li is currently imprisoned at Chuanbei Prison (川北监狱) in Sichuan province.
Chen Yunfei (陈云飞)
Chen Yunfei was a junior at Beijing Agriculture University in 1989 and one of the students on hunger strike in Tiananmen Square. On May 18, he fainted and was taken to the hospital. On the night of June 3, when resting in his dormitory, Chen heard that the troops were marching into downtown Beijing. Chen and his friends went out, trying to block the troops’ movement. The riot police knocked him unconcious.
In the following two decades, Chen interviewed parents whose son or daughter were killed in the massacre, collected their information, and commemorated the June 4th anniversary every year. Chen has also campaigned tirelessly for human rights and environmental protection over the years, and has received constant harassment because of his activities.
On June 4, 2007, Chen placed an ad in the Chengdu Evening News (成都晚报) that read “Salute the brave mothers who lost their children on June 4th.” Two days later, he was detained for “inciting subversion of state power” and placed under house arrest for six months.
On March 25 this year, Chen was detained shortly after visiting the grave of a journalism student gunned down and bayoneted to death in the morning of June 4th. In April, he was formally arrested for “inciting subversion of state power” and “picking quarrels and provoking trouble.”
Chen is currently detained at Xinjin County Detention Center (新津县看守所) and denied of lawyer visit.
Yu Shiwen (于世文)
In 1989, Yu Shiwen was a junior majoring in philosophy at Sun Yat-sen University in the southern city of Guangzhou and active in student affairs. After the democracy protests broke out, Yu was elected the president of the Autonomous Student Union of the university. He led student marches on streets, and staged a hunger strike in solidarity with students in Beijing. After the crackdown, Yu helped Beijing students who had escaped to Guangzhou. For this, Yu was detained for 18 months.
In the two decades that followed, Yu and his wife, who was also a student leader in 1989 at the same university, made a fortune from stock trading, but they had never forgotten 1989. They organized and hosted commemoration events over the years. In February 2, 2014, they organized a visit to the birthplace of Zhao Ziyang, the deposed Communist Party leader. Three months later, Yu and his wife, along with 10 others, were arrested. While all the others were eventually released, Yu Shiwen was indicted on April 23rd for “picking quarrels and creating trouble.” He is currently detained at Zhengzhou No.3 Detention Center (郑州第三看守所).
Yu wrote from the detention center, “I feel at ease, and honored. I’m finally making a real contribution to the memories of June 4.”
Pu Zhiqiang (浦志强)
Pu Zhiqiang was a graduate student in law at China University of Political Science and Law in 1989. He too was among the students on hunger strike in Tiananmen Square and remained there until the last moment. “On June 3, 1989, while in the Square,” Pu said years later, “I made a promise: ‘if I get out of here alive, I will revisit Tiananmen on this day every year.’” And he did.
In the years followed, Pu became one of the most prominent civil rights lawyers in China. He was the defense lawyer of, among many others, artist Ai Weiwei and dissident writer Tan Zuoren (谭作人) who was jailed for five years for investigating the collapse of school buildings during the 2008 Sichuan Earthquake.
Pu played a key role in ending the notorious “reeducation through labor” in China in 2012.
In May 2014, Pu was detained after attending a small gathering to commemorate the Tiananmen movement. On May 15, 2015, the Beijing Municipal People’s Procuratorate indicted Pu for “inciting ethnic hatred” and “picking quarrels and provoking trouble” and the evidence cited is a series of tweet-like comments he made online that criticized the Chinese government’s policies in Xinjiang and made fun of the Party propaganda.
Pu is currently held at Beijing No.1 Detention Center (北京第一看守所). He suffers from diabetes, high blood pressure and coronary heart disease and has been subjected to inhumane interrogations.
Gao Yu (高瑜)
In 1989, Gao Yu was 45 years old and the deputy editor of the Beijing-based magazine Economic Weekly. After learning that the government might use force against the students, Gao went to the Square to talk to the student leaders in an effort to persuade them to leave. In the morning of June 3rd, Gao was taken away by plain-clothes policemen as she left her home. She was secretly jailed for 15 months in Qincheng Prison.
Not too long after she was released, in 1993, Gao was arrested again and sentenced to seven years in prison for “leaking state secrets,” after she wrote articles about elite Chinese politics for a Hong Kong publication.
She was released on medical parole in 1999. Gao Yu continued to report news and write commentaries critical of the Communist leadership. She has since won numerous international awards for her courage and her contribution to the freedom of speech.
In April 2014, Beijing detained Gao again, also on charges of “leaking state secrets.” This time, the alleged secret was a Chinese Communist Party document known as the “Document No. 9,” which orders suppression of the ideas of constitutional democracy, rule of law, civil society, freedom press and other universal values. In April, a Beijing court sentenced the 71-year-old Gao Yu to seven years in prison.
Xu Zhiqiang, or Monk Shengguan (徐志强/圣观法师)
In 1989, Xu Zhiqiang was an engineer at a state-owned enterprise in Xi’an. He became a leader of the pro-democracy protests and a co-founder of the Xi’an Democracy Advancement Federation (西安促进民主联合会). Xu was arrested and jailed for a year.
In 2001, Xu became a Buddhist monk with the title Shengguan. In 2006, for performing Buddhist rituals to commemorate victims of the Tiananmen Massacre and promoting transparency in the temple in Jiangxi Province where he resided, Xu was evicted from the temple by police. In 2009, after Xu organized an event to pay tribute to Hu Yaobang, the liberal-minded Communist leader whose death triggered the 1989 movement, Xu was dismissed from the leadership of Honglian Tempe in Hunan Province.
In 2011, Xu met with His Holiness Dalai Lama in India.
In May 2014, three days after Xu had hosted a small seminar in Wuhan to commemorate the 25th anniversary of the Tiananmen Massacre, he was detained and charged with “picking quarrels and provoking trouble.” Xu was tried in April for “inciting subversion of state power,” but the court has yet to hand down a sentence. Xu is currently held at Wuhan No. 2 Detention Center (武汉市第二看守所) in Hubei province.
Zhu Yufu (朱虞夫)
In 1989, Zhu Yufu was an official at the Bureau of Housing Management in Hangzhou, the capital of coastal Zhejiang Province. He was detained for 27 days after taking part in in protests and lost his job.
Zhu was a co-founder of the outlawed opposition group, China Democracy Party, in the 1990s, and in 1999, he was sentenced seven years in prison for “inciting subversion of state power.”
After his release in 2006, Zhu spoke out against the torture he had endured in prison and continued to promote democracy. A year later, he was detained again for pushing a police officer who was harassing his teenage son. He was sentenced to two years in prison for “disrupting public service (妨碍公务罪).” His son was jailed for 18 months too.
In 2011, Zhu was arrested during the crackdown of the “Jasmine Revolution,” a series of public assemblies that took place in over a dozen cities after an anonymous tweet called for peaceful protests in China. In February 2012, Zhu was sentenced to seven years in prison for “inciting subversion of state power,” and his “crime” was a poem titled “It’s Time” that he had disseminated:
It’s time, Chinese!
The time is now.
The square belongs to all, and your feet belong to you,
It’s time to walk to the square to make a choice.
Zhu is currently imprisoned at Zhejiang No. 4 Prison (浙江第四监狱) in Hangzhou. Zhu suffers from poor health, and his application for medical parole has been denied repeatedly.
Chen Shuqing ( 陈树庆)
In 1989, Chen Shuqing was a 24-year-old graduate student at Hangzhou University (now Zhejiang University) and took part in the democracy movement.
Chen has since become an activist. In 1999, he was detained for four months for co-founding the China Democracy Party. After being released, he continued to organize activities on behalf of the Party, enduring harassment from the authorities.
In 2006, Chen was arrested in connection with his online expressions and the activities of the China Democracy Party. He served a four-year sentence.
In September 2014, Chen was criminally detained again on charges of “inciting subversion of state power.” Chen has been held at the Hangzhou Detention Center (杭州市看守所). His trial, scheduled for May, has been postponed.
Zhou Yongjun (周勇军)
There is a famous photo of 1989 in which three students knelt on the steps of the Great Hall of the People, entreating an audience with the Chinese leaders. Zhou Yongjun, on the right, was a student at the China University of Political Science and Law and the president of the Autonomous Student Union of Beijing Universities, a student group formed during the protests.
Zhou was imprisoned for two years afterwards. He came to the U.S. in 1993. In 1998, he was arrested and sentenced to three years of “reeducation through labor” when he attempted to re-enter China to visit his parents.
Zhou came to the U.S. again in 2002. In 2008, after being repeatedly denied of visa to return to China, Zhou made a second attempt to re-enter mainland China. He was arrested in Hong Kong for using a fake passport. Seven months later, the Hong Kong authorities handed Zhou to the Chinese government.
In January 2010, Zhou was sentenced to nine years in prison by a court in Sichuan on undisclosed charges of financial fraud. Zhou is currently held in Chongzhou Prison (崇州监狱) in Sichuan. In August 2014, it was reported that Zhou suffered from serious liver failure and partial blindness. For a while it was feared that he might die in prison. There has been no more reports about his conditions since.
Yaqiu Wang (王亚秋) researches and writes about civil society and human rights in China.
Always Parting: My Life with Liu Xianbin, by Chen Mingxian, 2010.
Democracy Is My Love Affair – the Story of Zhao Changqing, by Gu Chuan, January 12, 2014.
Tamer of Beasts, Tamer of Despots, by Liao Yiwu, May 24, 2015.
Tackling a Wall of Lies – a Profile of Pu Zhiqiang, by Albertine Ren, September 14, 2014.
Xi Jinping the Man, by Gao Yu, January 26, 2013.
—- Dedicated to Wives of Dissidents
By Chen Mingxian, published: March 29, 2015
Editor’s note: Among Chinese dissidents and activists, this essay by Chen Mingxian (陈明先), a high school Chinese teacher in Suining, Sichuan (四川遂宁) and wife of Liu Xianbin (刘贤斌), has become a classic. Since reading it a couple of years ago, I have kept remembering it, and some of the imageries seem to have preeminently lodged in my mind. Few writings do that to you. Last fall, I finally had it translated but have not had a chance to edit it for posting until now. For some time, I have also wanted to interview a group of wives of Chinese political prisoners, but that desire has kept being pushed back because there is always something more urgent to do. Such is the lot of this community of extraordinary women: quietly they shoulder the emotional and material toll exacted on them by the absence of their husbands, caring for the old and raising the young, but they are no priority on anyone’s agenda. Liu Xianbin was a student in Renmin University (中国人民大学) in 1989, his participation in the Tiananmen Movement landed him in Qincheng Prison where he served 2 and half years. He was again sentenced to 13 years in prison in 1999 for “subverting the state power” and released in November, 2008, on reduced prison term. In June, 2010, he was arrested again and, in March, 2011, he was sentenced to 10 years in jail for “inciting subversion of state power.” The article was written shortly after Liu Xianbin was arrested in June, 2010.
Several years ago when Xianbin was still serving his sentence at Sichuan Province’s No. 3 prison (in Dazhu county), Ouyang Yi (欧阳懿), a friend who had been campaigning tirelessly on Xianbin’s behalf, was constantly admonishing me to write something about the two of us. I thought there was nothing much to write. My meeting Xianbin was uncomplicated, not nearly as romantic as one might imagine. In November of 1993, I was teaching at Suining High School (遂宁中学), and Xianbin had just been released from Qincheng Prison (秦城监狱) in Beijing and was helping to watch his sister-in-law’s storefront. I would often go over to chat with his sister-in-law, and this is how Xianbin and I came to know each other.
And what did we talk about? I can no longer recollect. Although we both bore witness to the events of 1989, I was still full of curiosity about his experience that year. He was a man who had emerged from such suffering with energy and optimism intact. What more could he not endure? I thought. I felt so warmly toward him. He was unemployed and his household registration was with a village on the outskirts of the city, but at the time I was already coming to see that work unit and household registration were going to be largely irrelevant in the future. As long as he could support himself, I felt that I could support myself and our children.
Xianbin and I began dating in March of 1994. He had already left Suining by then, and he was shuttling between Suining and Chengdu peddling a kind of drink called Mango Tea. I have never cared very much about money, but seeing his unflagging hustle did please me.
In about May, Xianbin said that he would go to Beijing. Before his departure, we took a long stroll through Suining’s old, shabby streets. Xianbin feared that I would be lonely and suggested purchasing a black and white television, but I refused. He then suggested buying me a gold necklace, and again I was unwilling. Then we thought of going to sit for a photograph as a memento. We inquired at a number of photo parlors, but no one was willing to accommodate us. In the end, Xianbin and I spent an extravagant thirty-five yuans [about $4-$5 at the time] on a set of four black and white wedding portraits.
During the summer vacation my older brother’s family went to Beijing for sightseeing, bringing with him my letter and some clothing for Xianbin. They returned with a letter from Xianbin and a “Time Flows Swiftly as Water” cassette tape. In his letter he wrote how he sat alone in the park in dusk and how the distant strains of a piano reduced him to homesickness and tears.
On the 13th of September, we registered our marriage. Because Xianbin was in a rush to leave again, we didn’t have time to take a formal photograph and so we glued one of the black and white wedding portraits onto our marriage certificate. Xianbin took one with him to Beijing, and I kept the other three with me in Suining. Perhaps the separation was too painful to bear, Xianbin also had some plans for me to go to Beijing to look for job, but nothing came of them.
At the urging of Xianbin’s mother, we held a simple wedding ceremony on January 28, 1995. Xianbin’s dramatic turn from a student at Renmin University (人民大学) to convicted prisoner had been difficult for his mother to bear, and at last here was an occasion at which she could hold her head high. She said that throughout the wedding she had felt like singing. My own poor mother wept. She had learned Xianbin’s entire story only the night before the wedding. She had asked, helplessly, “how much farm land does Liu Xianbin own?”
I became Xianbin’s bride in a small room at the west end, neighboring the boy’s dormitory, on the ground floor of Jiguang Hall (继光楼) at Suining High School. Our new home was very simple: a portrait of us, twenty-four inch black and white, hung on the wall, and light filtered through the grids of green plastic glued to the expanse of window. Looking out from the window, one could see in the yard a big banyan tree, a small pavilion capped with green tiles, and an ancient bell. The bell had long since been abandoned and almost never rung before. The first morning after our wedding, Xianbin went outside with a hammer to ring the bell, like a child. With school out of session, the campus was quiet, and the simple, wholesome notes of the bell rang out long and travelled far.
Xianbin has mentioned this particular time many times in different settings. I think this must be because that small room and the ringing of the bell were among his loveliest memories; they came to stand for the rare moments in our lives where we have been free of care.
On the evening of the fourth day of the first lunar month, we returned from a gathering of Xianbin’s former classmates to find the door our small room ajar. All the things in the room were neatly and intact, but one of the two cameras resting on the writing desk had vanished. Xianbin believed that the curious restraint of our burglar could be accounted for with only one explanation: that the object of the theft had been the film rather than any valuables. And so our friend Chen Bin [Chen Wei’s younger brother] lost his camera, and we lost all the photographic record we had of our wedding.
Xianbin had already a sense of foreboding, but it made no effect on his mood. Although I was regretful, we were bereft of any recourse. Yet whenever the photographs were mentioned, I would wistfully imagine that they still lay in some safe corner and that they would return to us one day in the future.
I can’t remember how long Xianbin stayed with me after the wedding. He was always hurrying away and then suddenly returning. When he was gone, my heart would sink into some chasm where there would never be any word of him and my anxiety could find no accommodation. Perhaps our days together were too few in number, so that seeing him return suddenly, even after many years of marriage, would fill me with heart-fluttering shyness.
In the summer of 1995, Xianbin took me to Baoshi Middle School to see his good friend Ouyang Yi. At that time, Ouyang Yi was already a father. Teacher Luo, Ouyang’s wife, and I stayed at home to watch the toddler while Ouyang Yi took Xianbin to the homes of some local villagers to conduct surveys. After returning, Xianbin was full of excitement and wrote for several days.
When the police raided our home for the first time, we had already moved to the third floor on the east end of Jiguang Hall. It was a three-room, wood-lined apartment with a balcony and a simple kitchen and toilet. Though plainly furnished, it was our sweet home and it was there that Xianbin learned to cook.
In March and April of 1996, Xianbin’s sojourns were no longer so unrestricted. News of his returning would reach the police very quickly, and then he would be taken away for questioning. The questioning was often aggressive and threatening. Xianbin did not want to tangle with them and would later avoid coming back to Suining altogether.
Our reunions became ever more difficult. One morning in May, Xianbin’s mother came over telling me that Xianbin had returned, staying in her rental room on Small East Street. I rushed over and, furtively, I entered his mother’s room to see Xianbin sitting on an old bench paring a peach as he waited for me.
That afternoon, Xianbin took me to the park beside Suining First High School for a stroll. The park, sparsely visited, was safer than our home. We sat on a bench holding each other closely until dusk. For dinner, we ate “Feng Dumplings,” and then Xianbin took me to the bank of the Fu River (涪江). The riverbank was strung with garbage and rubble then, and few people would go there to walk about. We held hands as we walked back and forth under the weak lamp light. Xianbin decided to go into the city only after we had exhausted ourselves staying out late into the night. Having crossed many streets and alleys, we finally found, and checked into, a small guesthouse that did not require us to register for the night.
The police had not seen Xianbin for some time, and they must be very anxious. In early June, I received a telegram with news that my father was critically ill, so I hurried to my hometown in Renshou (仁寿). On the road, I noticed that there was a neatly dressed man who had been following me throughout my journey. He followed me from one bus transfer to another, and he would take out a dark object (it may have been a mobile phone) and huddle in a corner communicating something to someone. My intuition told me that they were looking for Xianbin. I later had proof from my sister-in-law, who not long after asked me: “Is there something wrong with Xianbin? Why did the police come here looking for you?”
Xianbin returned home upon the start of the America’s Cup in 1996, a weary bird returning to roost. The security police sought him out immediately upon hearing of his return. Xianbin’s old homeroom teacher from high school, now the school’s vice principal, knocked on our door, accompanied by a large entourage of police officers. The meeting of the teacher and the student was more than a little strained and awkward. Soon Xianbin was taken by Wang Yanwen (王延文), the brutish head of the domestic security branch of the local public security bureau, while the others stayed behind to turn our home inside out.
The police ransacked my bed!
The police scattered my clothing!
The police opened my diary!
The police was reading what I had written!
They had unscrupulously violated my privacy. It was as if I was stripped of all my clothes and thrown on the street for the first time in my life. Never in my life had I felt so humiliated. My entire body shook with rage and nervousness. Hidden against my chest was an address book Xianbin had passed to me, and I feigned calm while pacing the balcony.
The next day, Xianbin returned safely, and by then I had burned six heavy volumes of diary recording fourteen years of girlish youth and dreams.
At the end of May of 1997, shortly before our child was born, Xianbin put his travels in abeyance and returned home to stay. Seeing my heavy belly and struggling steps, he was secretly worried. One day, I went out to take a stroll on the street and, stopping at his sister-in-law’s storefront, began chatting so happily I forgot about returning home. He didn’t know what had happened and became as anxious as an ant on a hot pan.
On the morning of June 13, our child was born by caesarian section, and Xianbin could not contain his happiness. Every day, he busied himself washing clothes, making meals and looking after the baby. But before our child was a month old, he told me, “I have to take a trip, I will have my mother come over to help you.”
Xianbin left me some money for living expenses and left, seemingly without a care in the world. I didn’t know where he had gone, nor did I need to know, it seemed. But when he return again that autumn, he had tuberculosis flare-up. He was constantly coughing blood and had to be admitted to the hospital. I shuttled back and forth between home, the market, and the hospital with our child and a very heavy heart.
Xianbin had been very strong and capable, but falling ill made him vulnerable like a child in need of love and attention. I did everything I could, borrowing from family and friends to pay for his medical expenses and nutrition. After some time, I was too ashamed of approaching others for money and so, in exchange for a pittance, I sold the gold ring that Xianbin’s mother had given me. I will always remember the ache in my heart the day I paid my discreet visit to the tiny gold shop, thinking, “My love, I have nothing else left to save you!”
That was the second time Xianbin had tuberculosis. His mother was overwhelmed with anxiety, thinking of every possible means and trying out every folk remedy to drive the disease away. After hearing that there was a kind of herbal bath for treating the illness, Xianbin’s mother carried a large steel wok from Renli village (仁里场) several kilometers away to heat the medicinal water at our home. She kept giving us money out of her own scant living allowance. And in such a manner we struggled through those days.
The police also came to the hospital to see Xianbin, although I didn’t know whether they were visiting for other reasons. By the spring of 1998, Xianbin’s illness was in remission and he was well enough to recover at home. In April, we moved to a house near the school’s main gate. The house was in disrepair, but it was spacious enough to accommodate three rooms. This way, Xianbin’s father was able to live with us, looking after us for up to twelve years.
At that time, Xianbin’s father was 70 years old. He was still nimble, pushing our child everywhere in a bamboo stroller with Xianbin accompanying them. They would often take our child to the Northern Sichuan College of Education. The campus had a large garden with flowers in bloom year-round. When I was done teaching, I would often run over to look for them under the bobbing branches of the sweet-smelling tea olive tree where we gathered as a family. Having been there many times, those glorious golden tea olive blossoms, the tamarisk and the wisteria, fixed themselves in our hearts. After being released from jail, Xianbin more than once mentioned to our daughter that he had taken her to see the blossoms and birds call, but how could a thirteen-year-old girl recollect these tender memories of being with her father when she was too little to remember?
Xianbin’s health had not fully recovered, but he was nonetheless restless. As soon as the summer had passed, he traveled to Chengdu. Not long afterward, he had taken his bedsheets, his comforter, and other basic articles with him, as if he were planning to stay indefinitely. Our daughter was so young and in need of love, I redoubled my efforts trying to make up for the absence of her father’s affection and to ensure a happy childhood for her.
In December, Xianbin returned jubilant, bringing with him a fax machine. The fax machine needed to be connected to a phone before it could be used. And so we came to have a telephone installed in our home with the number 0825-2248222.
Xianbin could hardly contain his enthusiasm for the fax machine and stayed at home busying himself with it all day long. Meanwhile, the atmosphere around us became even more tense than usual: Officer Wang became ever more short-tempered, the searches of our home became more and more frequent, the duration of each police summon stretched longer and longer, often detaining Xianbin for 48 hours.
Later, a police car was parked outside our building day and night, and we could hear its noise from the third floor. With his movements monitored, Xianbin stayed at home without any way of printing out the essays he had written to transmit through the fax machine.
One day, I went out to buy groceries. Xianbin gave a draft of an article to me and I found a small shop and printed it, taking it home in the cloth bag I used for groceries. As Xianbin’s writing continued to be disseminated, the security police became suspicious and began to follow me. They confiscated the printing and copying machines belonging to the owner of the small print shop. I was taken to the public security bureau where I was interrogated for the first time.
Xianbin was infuriated by the constant harassment from the police and took our daughter with him to the Suining Public Security Bureau to protest. On December 19, at the Bureau’s main entrance, Xianbin refused to be interrogated, a flustered and frustrated Wang Yanwen (王延文) ordered several police officers to drag him away, tearing sleeves of his shirt. By January of 1999, the atmosphere seemed to have eased some and so Xianbin left Suining once more.
At the start of the winter vacation, Xianbin’s father returned to their hometown of Renli and busied himself in preparations for the Chinese New Year. My daughter and I had just each other for company, and we looked forward to Xianbin’s return. Although we had installed a phone in the house, Xianbin was very cautious and it had yet to ring for his wife and daughter. Two days before the New Year’s Day, Ouyang Yi told me that something had happened to Xianbin and he was being held at a detention center in Beijing. My heart, uneasy for days on end, finally sank.
My daughter and I rang in a desolate New Year’s Day in 1999. But I did not know then that that day’s void was just cracking open and that it would remain agape until 2008.
On June 13, 1999, when our daughter turned two, we had taken a family portrait. This is the only photograph of all three of us together that we have had. A few days later on the 20th, after our dry-daughter’s birthday dinner, Xianbin took another photograph with her in his arms. Who would have thought that this would be the only proof that he had ever held her close in his arms?
On July 7, the police burst through our front door and threw our simple home into disarray. Our daughter was still young and so was not very frightened. As he was being taken away, Xianbin held her tightly, just as he used to hold me each time before he left, as if we were parting forever (He was always saying goodbye, each time it felt to me as if it was for the last time). On August 6, Xianbin was sentenced to 13 years in prison and 3 years of “deprivation of political rights” for “subverting state power.” On September 3, he was sent to the Sichuan Province Number Three Prison in Dazhu County.
Dazhu was a small town in the east of Sichuan. I had never been there before. But over the endless stretch of the next ten years, my daughter and I squeezed onto trains and buses and bounced over rough roads time and time again. The road was treacherous and the bus trip full of dangers, I would clutch my daughter close, as if we were hurrying to make an appointment with death.
To distract ourselves from anxiety, my daughter and I would gaze at the mountains, the trees, the white mist rising from the slopes. My unease would subside only after the bus passed the foot of the Nine Dragon Mountain (九龙山) with its thick covering of hemp vines. In that isolated mountain town, we stayed in cheap lodgings charging 8-yuan a night and ate the simplest meals, and the three of us — my daughter, Xianbin’s mother, and I – each depending on one another.
My first impression of jail was formed in the summer of 1995. Our good friend Chen Wei  was transferred from Beijing to Sichuan’s No. 1 prison in Gaoping District of at Nanchong City (南充). Xianbin and I went to visit him. In a long room like a cafeteria, Xianbin and Chen Wei smoked and chatted while clasping hands across a long and white-tiled counter. From then, I thought that all Chinese prisons allowed inmates and their loved ones to hold hands and talk to one another.
But meeting with Xianbin was not so simple. Only after passing through two gates and completing a long series of procedures were we allowed to meet in a room, under the watchful eyes of wardens. I realized then how childish and naive it was to think that Xianbin and our daughter could celebrate the Chinese New Year together in prison while he was serving his sentence.
The meeting room was on the third floor, a small, rectangular space created by bulletproof glass. Every time, Xianbin would come to the glass room from the other end, his face wreathed in smiles, and sit before us. Although we were face to face, we couldn’t feel each other physically, and we had only a half hour to talk through the phone.
On one Chinese New Year, I took a few of our nephews to see their uncle. We got lucky that year, and were given unexpected permission to eat hot pot with him. Xianbin and I sat beside one another for a full hour, and yet, surprisingly, neither one of us dared to reach out and touch the other’s hand.
Another time, when our daughter was seven years old, she joyfully ran into the glass room and hugged Xianbin. She then turned to me and made a face, saying, “Mama, why don’t you give each other a hug too?” Xianbin and I hesitated on either side of the doorway, both casting a glance at the prison warden before stepping forward, husband and wife, for our only embrace in ten years.
Xianbin had always been very reserved, yet his letters were always filled with tenderness. He sent endless lessons, drawings, and stories for our child. But once I realized that he would not be the first to read my letters, my own words became lifeless and formulaic. I would report on everyone’s situation at home and reveal very little of my own feelings — I did not want to let the public security or prison officials revel in my sorrow. But sometimes I did write about my sadness. Yet Xianbin did not seem to register anything. When I told him later that I was always weeping when I wrote to him, he was deeply surprised.
Around 2001, Xianbin wrote to me saying that he had grown plump. I was worried about his condition (he had not fully recovered from his tuberculosis). When I suggested that he make sure that he wasn’t suffering from edema, I also mentioned the Great Famine of the fifties in passing. The next time I visited, the prison official presented my letter to me with an air of great self-importance, criticizing me for saying “a nation of swollen bodies?” in it. “You are a teacher,” he said, “How could you say this?” I stood my ground and began to quarrel with him loudly.
After 2005, my correspondence increasingly became limited to captions of photos. I began the habit of using pictures to communicate with Xianbin. I would send, for instance, a photo of a red dragonfly flitting around the outskirts of the city, our daughter’s flute recital, and family Spring Festival gatherings. I hoped that Xianbin would be able to access some feeling of nature and everyday life from these photographs and so draw closer to us in spirit.
After Xianbin began serving his sentence, I thought that our lives would become peaceful: He would no longer be drifting around indefinitely without enough clothing or food, and my daughter and I would no longer be constantly scared and traumatized, passing our time helplessly.
Xie Jun (谢军, Huang Xiaomin’s former wife) and Luo Bizhen (罗碧珍, Ouyang Yi’s wife and also a teacher) had told me about how terrified their children had been to witness the public security officers ransacking their homes and then taking away their fathers. I was glad that our daughter was only an infant and did not yet understand fear enough to be harmed by the memory. I savored the peace that fell after the tempest our family had been through, and in the midst of this tranquility even felt some happiness.
Xianbin’s friends would occasionally come to visit. When they left, they would leave behind articles they or others had written about Xianbin. In between the work of looking after our daughter and supporting the two of us, I wasn’t in the mood to appreciate these writings with careful attention.
But before and after June 4th every year, I would still be summoned and escorted, by an ill-tempered police officer named Zheng Dashuang (郑大双), to the school’s security office where I would be interrogated. Sometimes they were hostile and aggressive, other times wheedling. Perhaps it was my refusal to leave or denounce Xianbin that disappointed them. They would threaten to have me demoted to teach at a school in the countryside. But I was actually prepared to return home to farm, and so their threats held no force for me.
On the evening of May 28, 2001 (Xianbin had served nearly two years of his sentence by then), Zheng Dashuang arrived at my home with a large group of officers. They said that Xianbin had committed some illegal act while in prison, and that they needed to search our home to assist in the investigation. The police once again looked through every corner of our home, only uncovering the literary essays of Ouyang Yi and Huo Ge (火戈), and another letter written by Mr. Zhang whose first name I can no longer recall. As if they had seized upon something extremely valuable, they took me to the school’s administrative office and interrogated me until the small hours of the night.
Mr. Zhang was a Dutch national. As a young man he had been labeled a rightist. Out of sympathy, he had sent us one hundred U.S. dollars and forty Dutch guilders during the spring festival of 2000 as a new year present for our daughter. His letter was written in traditional characters, and his message extremely simple. But the police examined this letter for a long time, as if to unearth something from it. Seeing them treating a brief letter with such seriousness was actually quite amusing. But I had no desire to play audience to their particular brand of theater, and so I told them that I would return home because my daughter needed to be looked after. They took advantage of this weakness of mine, saying, “If you can’t explain yourself clearly you won’t be going home.” But I would never be able to explain things clearly to them! I refused to speak any more. Then they didn’t know what to do next. In the end, they drove me to a place north of the city and shut me away in a room.
The room was on the second floor of the building. There were a few metal-framed bunk beds, much like a student dormitory. It was empty and seemed as if no one had ever stayed in it. It was only by the light of the lamp outside that I saw that the bed in the center had a mattress. I crawled into it and fell asleep in my clothes.
The next morning, I woke to someone crying out “Time to eat!” and saw an elderly man pushing a bowl of rice porridge into the room through a small window. After eating breakfast I looked out through the window and could see the canopy of a large tree with glossy green leaves. The old man came back down the corridor twice, and, perhaps he thought I looked like a trustworthy person, he gave me a magazine to help me kill time.
At five in the afternoon, a plump woman opened the door. In her office, I filled out some personal information. Then, after asking if I had anything to add to the questions they had asked me the day before, she let me go.
Besides Xianbin’s father and my daughter, no one knew that I had been disappeared for twenty-four hours. When I contacted Chen Wei, he told me: “I was just released as well from the drug rehab!” It turned out that we had both been detained in the same place, only he had been held on the first floor. I asked him what he ate for lunch. “Potatoes!” he said. We both laughed uproariously.
At the end of 1999, the local public security bureau took out a large billboard on the plaza outside the Northern Sichuan College of Education celebrating their achievements. I heard they included a photograph of Xianbin at his trial. I didn’t go to see.
Word of my husband’s prison sentence slowly spread to the public. My daughter and I became the objects of pity, and I also became a figure that some avoided. At that time, associating with someone with a background like mine was dangerous if you were seeking to advance professionally or financially.
I broke off nearly all contact with my closest friends and relatives in my hometown so that their lives would remain undisturbed. My mother learned of Xianbin’s arrest and incarceration only in 2005 after Xianbin had been in prison for six years.
When Chen Wei was sentenced, his mother’s hair turned white overnight. For fear of subjecting my mother to the same distress, I took her to the garden of the Northern Sichuan College of Education and first gave her the news of Xianbin’s receiving a human rights award and the prize money he had won. Then I told her the actual circumstances of his incarceration and how my situation now were actually quite good. My mother was relieved. Although she was illiterate, she seemed to have understood everything. She looked untouched by age, peaceful and sage. It made me feel that perhaps all my anxiety over the previous years had been completely groundless.
Nonetheless, for many days, my mother hid in the kitchen, weeping. My daughter was not yet eight years old, but she had learned to comfort others. She said, “Grandma, don’t cry. Daddy teaches in the prison, he is doing very well!”
Although my daughter and I would only very rarely receive attention of my family in my hometown, we were still very lucky. On June 1st of 2000, Children’s Day, a retired teacher, also a “rightist” in the 1950s, discreetly came to our front door to give my three-year-old daughter a bag of plums and Wahaha, the sweet yogurt drink. Two of my friends, husband and wife, would often bring their child to our home to play with my daughter. For years they treated us like extended family. A doctor at a clinic on Yanshi Street (盐市街) was so sympathetic to me and my daughter that, every time we visited, she was always very attentive and then would ask for very little or no money. Chen Wei’s mother took her pension out of the stock market and insisted on lending us money to buy the apartment in Baisheng Courtyard. And elderly Mr. Deng Huanwu (邓焕武) came many times all the way from Chongqing to visit us and lent me the money to decorate the interior of the apartment so that we were able to settle into our new home in September of 2002. Although Xianbin could not be with us, our life in Baisheng Courtyard was very simple and happy.
On June 25, 2002, the domestic security police summoned me once again, but in the six years following, it seemed as if the public security officers had forgotten about my existence (although I learned later that they had had me on their radar all the time). They only called me to the school’s administrative office twice. Once, a police officer from Chongqing came to investigate whether Xiao Xuehui (肖雪慧) had brought me American currency. The second time, the Suining police required me not to leave Suining while the Olympics were being held in China. I worked quietly, saving money and running our household; our daughter was healthy and doing really well in school.
On December 5, 2002, Ouyang Yi was taken away by the Chengdu police and was later sentenced to two years in prison for inciting subversion of the state power. His wife, teacher Luo Bingzhen, was heartbroken, and I did not know how to comfort her. In today’s China, all dissidents’ wives are likely to face the same fate. I didn’t know how our tears and sorrow could alter anything.
Compared to the interminable length of Xianbin’s sentence, Ouyang’s two years seemed fleeting. On the afternoon of December 4, 2004, the prison officers escorted Ouyang back to Suining, his hometown while Teacher Luo traveled to Chengdu to greet him. They missed each other. The local police officers had to bring him back into town. At the bridgehead of Heping Road (和平路), Ouyang’s former classmate Kong Jie (孔杰) and I finally met him.
Two years in prison left marks on Ouyang. As his slim body made its way toward us, I was startled to see what Xianbin would look like, in years later, with all the helplessness and desolation in and around him.
In my dreams, Xianbin returned to me in many different ways. In the earlier versions, I would dream of visiting him in prison and helping him to escape. In later dreams, he would come back, smiling, with his bag slung over his shoulder looking bedraggled. Still later, I would dream of hearing news that he was getting an early release but then I wouldn’t be able to find a trace of him. I think my dreams, over the years, had gone from hope to despair, and, in the end, there was neither but a certain elusiveness.
In September of 2008, Xianbin wrote to me telling me the exact date by which he would have finished serving his sentence. But I didn’t experience much joy as one might have imagined. For me and for him, freedom seems such an extravagance. Xianbin had spent ten years apart from me, how much time would we need to close the distance between us? I couldn’t bear to see him being helpless and lonely; could he bear to see me as hardened as alkaline soil?
I remember reading a passage about the wife of a Russian dissident. It says that her face could no longer register joy or sorrow. I think I too will eventually become like her, aged, numb, and expressionless, because it was only for one year, seven months, and twenty-two days from November 6, 2008 to June 28, 2010, that Xianbin and I were reunited. Now he’s gone again, we are once again on the interminable journey of walking toward one other.
Afterword: For reasons of length, I am unable to describe in this essay all the care and help I have received. All that I have lived through over the past 15 years is also the past, present, or future experience of the wives of other dissidents. And so I sincerely dedicate this piece to those women who were, are, or will be the wives of dissidents.
Baisheng Courtyard, July 14 – August 10, 2010.
 Chen Wei (陈卫), Liu Xianbin’s high school classmate, entered Beijing Industrial College (北京工业学院, now Beijing Institute of Technology) to study physics in 1988. In 1989, he witnessed June 4th movement as a student leader. He was subsequently arrested and sentenced for a year and a half and expelled from college. In 1992 he was sentenced to five years in prison for organizing the Chinese Freedom and Democracy Party (中国自民党). Between 1997 and 2011, he participated in organizing the Sichuan Democratic Party (四川民主党), signed 08 Charter, and was an important coordinator of non-violent rights activism. He was charged with “inciting to subvert state power” in March, 2011. In December 23 of the same year, he was sentenced to nine years in prison. Among the evidence presented by prosecutors were four articles he authored – “Constitutional Democracy as Medicine for a Diseased System,” “Growth of an Opposition Key to China’s Democracy,” “The Trap of ‘Harmony’ and the Absence of Justice,” and “Thoughts during My Human Rights Day Fast.”
Chen Wei’s wife waits for his return, July, 2012.
(Translated by Sophie J.)
By China Change, published: January 12, 2015
Shortly before June 4th, 2014, ten in Zhengzhou, capital of Henan province, were arrested for holding a public memorial for Zhao Ziyang (赵紫阳). Seven of them have since been released, and three have remained in custody for over six months now without an indictment. The 47-year-old Yu Shiwen, who organized the memorial along with his wife Chen Wei, suffered a stroke. Recently, the public security once again urged indictment for the three. Yu’s case has drawn attention from participants, inside and outside China, of the Tian’anmen democracy movement 25 years ago.
On February 2nd, 2014, Yu Shiwen, Chen Wei, and a group of Henan-based citizens held a memorial in Hua County, Henan provicnce (河南滑县), to remember Zhao Ziyang, Hu Yaobang and those who died during the June 4th massacre in 1989. After the memorial, Yu Shiwen sent photos to overseas Chinese websites and was interviewed by Radio Free Asia. But they were not arrested until shortly before the June 4th anniversary on charges of “picking quarrels and creating disturbances,” likely a result of Chinese authorities’ nervousness leading up to the anniversary.
In poor health, Yu Shiwen has been shuttled several times between the detention center and a hospital. The public security twice recommended indictment but were asked to provide more evidence. Last December, the public security once again sent Yu Shiwen’s case to the prosecutors for indictment.
Lawyers of the three recently issued statements against possible indictment. Yu Shiwen’s lawyer Ma Lianshun argued that there is nothing against the law about remembering Hu Yaobang, Zhao Ziyang and the June 4th dead, and what Yu and his friends did in no way “created disturbances.” Lawyer Ma further argued that the Chinese Communist Party should redress the Tiananmen Democracy Movement, recognizing its legitimacy and historical significance. Should Yu Shiwen be tried, Ma said, he would have to defend his client by introducing a plethora of witness accounts relating to the June 4th crackdown, its origin, development and tragic ending.
Yu Shiwen and Chen Wei were students at Sun Yat-sen University in Guangzhou in 1989. They became student leaders during the democracy movement that took the country by storm that spring. They each served prison time afterwards. In the two decades that followed, the couple lived mostly in Zhengzhou where they tried their hand in business and made a considerable fortune in stock trading.
Zhou Fengsuo, another 1989 student leader who lives in California now, told Radio Free Asia that, “as a member of the 1989 generation, I have a lot of respect for Yu Shiwen for keeping alive his idealism after 25 years. I personally feel compelled to stand side by side with them in his current plight, and I also call on other 1989ers to pay attention to his case.”
Braving the cold, on January 6, Yu Shiwen’s 85-year-old mother and older sister, the wife of Dong Guangping, and the mother of Hou Shuai demonstrated in front of Guancheng District Prosecurorate, holding banners that read, “It’s not a crime to remember the dead,” “Return to your loved ones.”
“Among our ranks of the 1989ers, many have had success in business and made money,” said Zhou Fengsuo. “In private, many are candid about their assessment of the democracy movement of our youth, but few are as courageous as Yu Shiwen and Chen Wei to make a public statement. Such is the burden imposed on our conscience by the CCP tyranny. When we choose silence, we are giving tyranny a free rein.”
Fang Zheng, another 1989er who lost both legs in the morning of June 4th to charging tanks, initiated a signature campaign calling upon 1989ers, whether they are overseas or inside China, to provide testimonies on the truth of the Tiananmen Massacre, should Yu Shiwen and the two others be tried.
“I don’t know what CCP is thinking to detain Yu Shiwen and the two others, and possibly try them, for commemorating June 4th after 25 years. As witnesses, it’s imperative that we step out to testify the facts of that time in front of the CCP prosecutors…. We will make our voices heard,” said Zhou Fengsuo.