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Banner image by Glyn Lowe

Prison Memoirs

It marked the beginning of a unique experience in my life. On the morning of June 4, 1989, having lived through the darkest night in modern Chinese history, I bid good-bye to Beijing University, where I was a sophomore in the History department, and embarked on a risky journey of escape. As a chief leader in what the Chinese premier called the "counterrevolutionary riot," I felt certain that the authorities would retaliate and put me behind bars.

During the following month, I traversed China, taking shelter at friends' places in four different cities. Upon realizing that no place in China would be safe from the omnipresent eyes of the police, I returned to Beijing which I knew was tantamount to "throwing myself into the fishermen's net." As expected, the police captured me on July 2 in the city's western district. They first sent me to a secret detention center near Changping County. The next evening, I was transferred to China's most notorious Qincheng Prison, where I was locked up for nineteen months.

On February 17, 1993, under intense international pressure, the Chinese government released me on parole with the excuse that I was compliant and had "actively participated in physical labor to reform" myself.

People always tell me that one should feel fortunate to encounter or to be involved in a history-making event in his or her life. It is certainly true in my case. The series of events unfolding in that year still remain vivid in my memory.

I have to admit that psychologically, I had long prepared for my arrest and subsequent imprisonment. As a freshman at Beijing University, a traditional hotbed of student movements, I organized the "Democracy Salon," where a diversity of ideas could be freely discussed and debated. I also prepared for the publication of an underground monthly magazine. I fully realized the potential risks that my action would bring. One day I invited Ren Wanding, a veteran democracy activist, as a guest speaker. On our way to the lecture hall, I asked, half jokingly and half seriously, for advice on how to handle the tough life in a Chinese prison. I knew that Ren had been actively involved in the "Democracy Wall" movement of 1979 when a group of intellectuals posted big-character posters on a bulletin board set up in one of Beijing's busy shopping districts, urging the government to implement political reform and promote democracy in China. Ren, who ended up in jail for four years, imparted to me the following advice on that day: "If you happen to be behind bars, you should keep talking. Long-term solitary confinement could hamper your ability to think and speak coherently."

In April that year, a group of us rallied students from major universities in Beijing, and we took to the streets to protest against government corruption and to call for democratic reform. The movement soon spread nationwide. On April 26, when the People's Daily, the official mouthpiece of the Communist Party, published an editorial pronouncing the student demonstrations an illegal "riot," I saw clearly the imminent dangers befalling me, but I wasn't deterred. At the end of April, there was a rumor floating around at my university which said that my name came up at the Politburo meetings. Some senior leaders were said to have accused me of "subverting the government." There was no way for me to confirm the rumors, but I knew that the government wouldn't let me off the hook if the movement failed. The prospect of imprisonment hovered around in the back of my mind.

After the crackdown on June 4, the government put twenty-one student leaders on the most wanted list, with me at the top. My name and picture had been flashed on national TV and splattered on bulletin boards all over the country. As I moved from one hiding place to another, I knew that my fate was sealed.

I went back to Beijing and soon found myself tailed by plainclothes public security officers. When they spotted me and seized my arms, I remained calm and didn't try to run or put up any resistance. They first took me to a public security branch nearby and then one officer picked up the phone to report the good news to his big boss. I heard him say: "Little Wang has been caught!" I couldn't help laughing to myself at the intimate way that the public security officer said my name.

With orders from the top, four officers put me in a squad car and escorted me to what I found out later was a secret detention center near Changping. To prevent me from looking outside the window and thus identifying the location, they pinned my head down. I closed my eyes, urging myself to be ready for any eventuality.

As I was waiting for the interrogation to begin at the detention center, a sense of peace came over me. The stress and fear that accompanied me during my escape dissipated and I felt very much at ease. Before my interrogators showed up, I became bored and requested a copy of the latest issue of the Chinese equivalent of Reader's Digest. I actually read the whole magazine with interest, almost forgetting about my circumstances. Looking back, it strikes me as almost unimaginable.

The next evening, a police squad car drove me in the darkness and dropped me off at the Qincheng Prison.

Despite the fact that they pinned my head down again, I could feel that we were going toward the northwest where Qincheng was located. I had heard many stories about the prison, which bore witness to forty years of political turbulence since the Communist takeover in 1949. Many prominent political prisoners left their mark in there.

For some reason, the short trip in that dark night became etched in my memory. Twenty years later, as a free man living in the United States, I'm still overcome with emotion when I think of that journey. I remember that a well-known dissident Chinese scholar said in his speech at my university in the fall of 1988: "During this time of political turbulence, I feel honored to be playing one of a limited number of tragic roles." I share his sentiments. The failure of the movement and loss of personal freedom were tragic but I felt honored that my personal fate could be closely linked with the fate of a country.

The squad car drove into Qincheng unhindered, through one gate after another, and finally stopped in front of a small gray building. I was first led to a reception room, undergoing a thorough body search. They took my belt and shoe laces, and handed me a rice bowl with lid, a plastic spoon, a roll of toilet paper and some clothes for me to change into. I carefully held them in my arms and followed a uniformed guard through a door with iron bars. Driven by curiosity, I walked slowly while my eyes darted around. It was already pitch dark even thought it was only eight o'clock. The long narrow corridor was dimly lit, a row of small doors, as wide as a person's waist, lined up along the right wall. I figured those were entrances to prison cells. Our footsteps echoed loudly in the empty corridor. The atmosphere was scary and depressing.

Prisoners call a section of cells a "tong" or "tube." I was assigned to the first room in Tube No. 6, about five square meters. I had a window, which was high up on the wall, and the glass had been painted with white paint. On the side of the windowed wall stood a radiator next to the bed. The so-called bed was actually a piece of wooden plank on the floor, a bit like the Japanese tatami, which could accommodate two people lying side-by-side. An open space of about two square meters was set aside between the bed and the door. A cement wash sink with a water tap was installed against the wall on the west side. On the corner between the sink and the door, there was an old-fashioned ceramic toilet bowl without a lid. My room was fitted with two doors. The outer wooden door stood as thick as the length of an index finger. On the top was a peephole for guards and officers to monitor my activities inside. On the lower part of the door, there was an opening for the cook to put the food through. The interior door was made of wrought iron bars which remained locked all the time. Except for interrogation time, no one, including the guards, was allowed to unlock the security door. I always wondered what would happen if an earthquake struck. There was no way I could get out alive.

The white walls had just been painted and I could smell the fresh paint. It reminded me of a rumor I had heard while we were staging a hunger strike in Tiananmen Square. We were told that authorities were prepared to suppress the student protests and had vacated major prisons in Beijing to make room for student organizers. A dozen students from the Beijing Science and Technology University actually confronted Marshal Xu Xiangqian who strongly denied its veracity. From what I had seen, there was certain truth to the rumor—authorities at Qincheng had certainly prepared in advance to "welcome" us.

I learned later on that each tube consisted of six to seven rooms. My room, No. 6, the smallest, was reserved for an individual prisoner. The rest were bigger, and could accommodate ten or more people. On more than one occasion, guards jokingly pointed out to me that in the military when a regiment commander was convicted of a crime, he could enjoy the privilege of having a cell of his own. In the eyes of the authorities, I ranked pretty high. I was impressed.

Upon entering the cell, I suddenly remembered an excerpt from a book that every high school student in China must read—Reports Written Under the Noose, written by Czech journalist Julius Fucik, who had been executed by the Nazis. I think the book began with this line to describe the size of his prison cell: "It was seven steps to walk over and seven steps to walk back." The first task that I performed, after putting down my personal possessions, was to make a comparison between a Nazi prison cell and a Communist one by measuring the size of my room. To my surprise, I walked exactly seven steps from my bed to the door. Of course, those were tiny steps.

I spent three years and seven months inside this cell.

I continued to remain calm and peaceful. I held a belief that as a dissident, if one refused to keep silent and tolerate injustices and undemocratic rules, one had to speak up and be prepared for suppression and life in prison. I saw prison as a necessary phase for my engagement in the pro-democracy movement and a compulsory course for a dissident to understand the Chinese political reality. Since I had chosen this path, I should be ready for the unavoidable bumps and potholes. Therefore, I kept my optimistic spirit throughout.

While I was on the run, many people worried that a "top criminal" like me could suffer on-the-spot execution once I was caught. Their fear was justified because for several months, China seemed to have been plunged into a reign of red terror. I didn't fully believe that the consequences could be that dire, but I prepared myself to embrace any potential punishment. The first day at Qincheng, I began to ponder the two possible scenarios: secret execution or spending my whole life alone in this tiny cell. Whatever the outcome would be, I never regretted my past action. My favorite Chinese writer, Zhou Guoping once said: "The real meaning of life lies in its density, not its length." I was only twenty years old but had experienced an earth-shattering democracy movement. So if I were to die? I could claim proudly that I had lived a real life.

Of course, my mood changed when I learned later on that a large number of residents and students had died during the bloody crackdown on the night of June 3. My heart was laden with guilt and sorrow. In my later years as an exile, a scene described to me by a survivor, has been haunting me: A group of protesters marched on Chang-an Boulevard outside Tiananmen Square, oblivious of the rolling tanks and soldier's bullets. One fell; another one moved up. Blood spilled over onto the street. I've never been shy to speak my mind—deep down, I feel that I'm responsible for this tragedy. I was guilt-ridden because I hadn't been with my comrades when they were marching side by side toward the tanks. I should have been the first one to fall. Instead, I became a survivor.

Throughout the protest movement, I had advocated a non-violent approach. In the end, many of my fellow students and residents had fallen victims to violence. If the authorities had sentenced me to death, I would have gained my spiritual salvation, appeased my conscience and paid my debt to those who had lost their lives.

I contemplated death, but when death didn't arrive, my hope for life increased. I began to believe that the world was changing. Darkness would come to an end. When guards handed me a ball point pen and some papers to write my confession, I used the tool and composed a farewell poem for my mother and one for my father. I then copied the poems on the margins of an atlas. Unfortunately, guards confiscated that atlas because I had also jotted down some comments on what lessons we could draw from the failure of the pro-democracy movement. The poems and comments written on that atlas were used by prosecutors during my trial as further evidence of my illegal counterrevolutionary activities. They never returned that atlas, and the poems were lost. In the poems, I persuaded my parents not to grieve for my incarceration and urged them to wait patiently for my safe return because, in time, China would change.

Thus, my life in prison started. Initially, I was concerned that my health wouldn't hold up. The food was awful. Three times a day, we were served corn buns with some cucumbers, potatoes and eggplants. Without any meat, and no oil in the vegetables, the buns were not filling or nourishing. I craved bigger portions. I had never been a big eater, but while in jail I once gobbled down three big steamed corn buns. Speaking of those fresh corn buns, a staple food for ordinary people in the Mao era because wheat was hard to come by, they really tasted divine for starving prisoners like me. I would always save one for afternoon snacks. When I became bored, I would take a bite and savor the delicious flavor in my mouth, tastier than cookies or cakes. After my release, I swapped notes with other former inmates, who felt equally nostalgic about the corn bread. Subsequently, when I was transferred to the Beijing No. 2 prison, the corn bread disappeared. We were served wheat buns. I initially thought the change signaled the efforts on the part of prison authority to improve treatment of political prisoners. It didn't work that way. It turned out that hardship food in the Mao era became in fashion again and, therefore, prices became more expensive on the market.

To keep fit, I forced myself to conduct routine physical exercise. Compared with other prisoners, I had the whole cell to myself and used the limited space as my gym. Everyday, I jogged in a circle around the room five hundred times, about 2,000 meters. Often times, the jog left me dizzy and panting for air. I also did push ups or jumped up and down. Before bed time, I stretched with a set of aerobics that I learned in school. Without the music, I would hum and shout out the instructions myself, creating some fun entertainment for myself. As a result, I was seldom ill.

I was constantly worried about suffering from "mental paralysis." I understood that long-term incarceration could easily lead to depression and loss of mental capacity to think and write. I drafted rules for myself to follow: Look to the future and don't dwell on the present. Keep calm and smile during interrogation. I tried to review those rules in my mind several times a day. Often times, I was alone in the room, bored and depressed, I would stand up, facing the window and hum some old songs that I could remember. I knew I was out of tune, but the singing rejuvenated my spirit. The song that I hummed repeatedly was the "Internationale," which brought me back to the early flag-waving days in Tiananmen Square. We had set up a radio station at the square and the song was blaring through loudspeakers dozens of times a day, so stirring and heroic. My spine still tingles when I hear the "Internationale" now. It's ironic that in the post Tiananmen era, this time-honored Communist anthem has turned into a thorn in the ears of Communist leaders, a bitter reminder of that unpleasant past. Friends told me that in mainland China, the "Internationale" has been removed from song lists at Karaoke bars, where thousands of titles, popular or obscure, are available.

When I arrived in the United States, I learned a phrase—Careful what you wish for, you may get it. It rang true to my life. As a child, books were my addiction. My mother used to work at the Chinese History Museum, which featured a large library. Each time she brought me to work, I would disappear in the forest of shelves, roaming around and skimming through book after book. Later on, as a history major at Beijing University, I had purchased piles of new books but never had time to read them. When people teased me, I would always say: I save them for my later consumption in prison where I will have all the time I want. Six months later, my casual joke turned into a reality. In the three years and seven months of my incarceration I read nearly 1,000 books, including those piled up on my dorm bed.

At Qincheng, when I didn't have access to magazines and books during the first several months, I suffered mental agony. I admired those common criminals inside bigger cells, who could idle around all day, chatting with others without any sign of boredom. To me, that was a talent that I wished I possessed. The availability of books was a key factor affecting my mood. In July of 1992, I was hospitalized for laryngitis. Since we left in a hurry, I didn't bring any books. As I lay on the hospital bed, staring at the white walls, I turned restless and asked a prison officer for books. He rejected my request. As a desperate measure, I staged a hunger strike. Half an hour later, a deputy chief from the Reeducation Bureau rushed to the hospital after receiving an urgent call from his staff. He looked puzzled after he heard the whole story, blaming me for making a fuss over a trivial matter. He went around the hospital and found me a book. I immediately agreed to give up my hunger strike. In the eyes of prison officers, it was much ado about nothing. But they would never understand the pain of being separated from books under those special circumstances.

My fetish for books helped me survive the loneliness in prison, where I was deprived of any physical contact with the outside world. Books and magazines became my good companions, my proxy conduit to the free world. The totalitarian government could restrict my physical freedom, but they couldn't control my free mind.

Moving from the hectic, crowded and exciting Tiananmen Square into a dark solitary cell required psychological adjustment. The sudden transformation accentuated my loneliness. I missed terribly my former classmates and comrades who fought side by side with me in Tiananmen Square. I never stopped searching for news about them.

When I was on the run, I heard on Voice of America that Wuer Kaxi, another key member of the student leadership at Tiananmen, had safely left China and arrived in Paris, France. Wuer Kaxi suffered from heart disease, and he wouldn't be able to survive a day in prison if he was caught. The senior leaders hated him to the bone for his acidic outspokenness against the government. We used to joke that some day, we would be lucky enough to serve our time together in a Chinese jail. That dream partially came true for me, but he would have no luck. Later on, news came that leaders like Li Lu, Sheng Tong and Chai Ling had all landed in the United States. As a note of digression, student leaders at Tiananmen had never dealt with China's public security bureaus. Nor did they have any experience dodging police arrests. Fortunately, the majority of Chinese citizens detested the government crackdown and refused to cooperate with authorities. In the coastal regions, local police took more or less an attitude of indifference to government orders. Otherwise, it would be hard to imagine that several hundred pro-democracy activists were able to escape overseas under their "watchful" eyes.

The ones who had escaped China led an exiled life overseas. The majority ended up in prisons around the country. When I was in hiding in the southern city of Nanjing, I saw on TV that my friends, Xiong Yan, Liu Gang, Yang Tao and Zhang Lin, all of whom were on the most wanted list, were arrested one by one. Sad as it was, I took comfort in the thought that I would have plenty of company in jail.

The first night I was at Qincheng, I overheard Xiong Yan's familiar voice. He and I were Beijing University alumni. Back in 1988, he and I were both involved in organizing a small scale student protest at the university. We teamed up again at Tiananmen. In other words, we were veteran fighters. He was loud and carried that thick Hunan accent. When he was talking with a guard in Tube No. 5, I immediately knew it was him. Later on, I heard a guard calling the name "Lian Shengde." He had been a student at Tianjin Aeronautical Design Institute and traveled to Beijing in April. For a while, he was in charge of organizing students from out of town. We met several times at Tiananmen. Prisoners at Tube No. 5 knew that a "VIP" (my nickname among guards) had been locked up in Tube No.6, but they didn't know it was me. Upon arrival, I deliberately raised my voice when I talked to the guard, sending a signal that I had been captured. As expected, I heard people asking the guard: "That hoarse voice sounds familiar. Is that Wang Dan?" From then on, we would communicate with each other by banging on the door and deliberately coughing loudly.

One afternoon, five guards escorted me to the courtyard for my weekly twenty-minute break. On my way back, I suddenly heard someone calling my name. Before I could see where the voice came from, the guards dragged me away in a hurry. One guard even rushed over to the building to investigate who was bold enough to break prison rules. Tension was building up and I found it ridiculous to see that they would make a fuss over this, as if prisoners were going to stage another riot if they knew I was there. Many years later, I discovered the person who spotted me on that day. He was Zhang Ming, a former student at the prestigious Qinghua University. He happened to be standing on his quilt and looking outside when he saw me. He couldn't help it and started to scream. Later on, he was punished for expressing his excitement.

Occasionally, on my way to the interrogation room, I had the opportunity to see others of my comrades. The prison authorities had taken extra caution to prevent us from gathering or even bumping into each other. Under normal circumstances, two guards would lead me to the interrogation room, one at the front and the other following me at the back. When the guard at the front saw another student leader passing by, he would immediately gesture to me to stop until my friend was out of sight. No matter how elaborately they planned, I still found opportunities to greet my former comrades. One day after my interrogation session, I walked out of the room first, while the officer was putting together his notes. I saw Chen Xiaoping walking in my direction, he looked sick. Chen was a young teacher at the China University of Politics and Law, a well-known constitutional scholar. He saw me and we glanced and smiled at each other knowingly. The brief encounter brought excitement to me all day. Ten years later, when we met up again in the U.S., we both remembered that moment.

My weekly breaks took place inside a courtyard surrounded by tall walls. I saw the names of several of my friends scrawled on the walls. I followed suit. When the guards were not looking, I picked up a piece of pebble from the ground and scratched my name on a prominent place on the wall. I was hoping that other inmates would see it.

One day, the prison organized a group activity. All the inmates gathered at an open space in my section to hear a talk by a high-level official from the Beijing Municipal Public Security Bureau. Unfortunately, I wasn't allowed to attend for fear that people might know that I was locked up at Qincheng. What was so comical was that a stocky guard was posted in front of my door, blocking the peep hole so other inmates couldn't see who was inside as they passed my cell. I waited by the door patiently, looking for opportunities. After a while, the guard was tired and slightly changed his posture. In that fleeting moment when he tilted his shoulder, I saw my friend Liu Gang sitting in the front row. Liu was a physics major at my university. The excitement was indescribable. In the next few months, I looked forward to similar group activities. Unfortunately, the authorities soon canceled them. Inmates used the opportunity to greet each other and openly challenged government policies.

Knowing that I was surrounded by friends, I no longer felt lonely. In the end, I simply treated Qincheng as a university, where I learned my lessons in life. With my friends living in "dorms" nearby, the scary and depressing prison became more habitable.