"I am certainly sympathetic to the Chinese, having lived here as an exile for 30 years," said Milosz, a professor of Slavic languages at UC Berkeley who fought communism in Warsaw after World War II.
Last month, Milosz returned to Poland for a lecture tour. He was inspired, he said, by a new movement to publish the works of dissident writers in Eastern Europe. "Writers in exile are being vindicated," he said.
The Chinese, regrettably, are not as lucky, he said. To his Asian compatriots, Milosz lent a word of advice: "Patience."
Chinese Writers in Exile is working with Amnesty International and Asia Watch, the human-rights agencies, and with PEN International, a writers organization, to monitor the arrests of dissident writers.
According to PEN, 77 Chinese writers have been arrested since the slaughter at Tian An Men Square last June. None of PEN's contacts knows if those writers have been sentenced or executed, said Andrea Gambino, a PEN spokeswoman.
According to Fei's most recent information from sources in China, in March, security forces jailed 11 writers and poets in Sichuan province and Beijing (these are included in PEN's figure). So far, one writer--Zhou Lunyou of Chongqing-- has been sentenced to three years in prison, Fei said. Zhou was the editor of Fei Fei, an avant-garde magazine for writers and artists.
"For Americans, freedom of speech is like having a drink-- you are born with it," Fei said. "For us, it's the most valuable thing of all. Individualism in China doesn't exist."
Like scores of other writers who live in dictatorships, the Chinese have endured their plight for generations.
Mao Tse-tung issued his edicts on art and literature in 1942, and since the Communist victory that established the People's Republic in 1949, writers have served the party. Literature was a political tool for "engineering the souls" of readers, wrote Perry Link, editor of "Stubborn Weeds: Popular and Controversial Chinese Literature after the Cultural Revolution."
After Mao's death and the fall of the "Gang of Four" in the mid-1970s, a new tolerance of the arts was encouraged by Deng Xiaoping and his reformists. Literary journals flourished.
But over the past decade, the party's view of artistic freedom has swung back and forth, from relative openness to severe oppression.
"Since Tian An Men, we've probably seen the most dramatic crackdown on writers," said Edward Morin, co-editor of "The Red Azalea: Chinese Poetry Since the Cultural Revolution." "All the writers can do now is pass out leaflets."
Or, as one poet remarked at the San Francisco conference, writers in England are honored with knighthood after their deaths. In China, he said, writers are honored with pieces of paper calling them "counterrevolutionaries."
According to Morin, modern Chinese writers deal with themes of alienation, isolation and "a social wasteland" of poverty and government corruption.
Many are former Red Guards who secretly rebelled against party ideology, adopting their own dialectic. Others rejected Chinese politics and literature, turning to experimental writing or Western ideas of art.
A big issue for the exiled writers is the struggle to preserve modern and classical Chinese language, observed Li Tuo, an exiled literary critic who teaches at the University of Chicago's Center for East Asian Studies.
Li believes the language is threatened by Western culture and what he calls "Maoist language"--an "oppressive" writing philosophy that controls Chinese creativity and thought.
Authors and intellectuals, he said, are trying to overcome those influences in literature, history, political science and sociology. "Writers are in the vanguard of these efforts," Li said, speaking at the writers' conference.
Poets Bei Dao and Duo Duo, who both attended the conference, symbolize the literary spirit of the post-Mao era. Ten years ago, their influential underground journal, Jintian (Today), helped launch the "misty" or "obscure" literary movement, a derogatory term coined by conservatives who believed the frank writing in Jintian clouded the party's political truths. As free writers in the West, Bei told The Times that Chinese writers face a new crisis: the "exile" of their language and aesthetic.
"We must now rely on memory and imagination, on our spiritual links to China," said Bei, 41. "But if our memory and imagination dry up one day, how do we keep our language alive?"
Bei left China in April, 1989, to attend a San Francisco gathering on Chinese culture at the invitation of U.S. writer Orville Schell. During the Tian An Men massacre, Bei was in Stockholm, where he now lives.
The exiled writers hope their work will transcend nationalistic boundaries. One sign of their faith: They're reviving Jintian in Europe and beginning a new journal, the Forum, in the United States.
"Like one great river," Duo said, "Chinese and world literature must flow together."