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'Thank You, Warden!'

February 18, 2001|BEI LING | Bei Ling, a poet, is the founder and editor of Tendency. His essay was translated from the Chinese by Denis Mair

More than four months have passed since I was released from jail, escorted to the airport, expelled from China and put on a plane for America. It has taken time for me to calm down, to fend off all the commotion and take stock of this experience, though I still have not entered the stage of recollection.

Actually, when I lift up my pen to describe this experience, I encounter a block: The trauma lingers, and an uncanny resistance to writing comes over me. I want to get far away from this nightmare, to let time do its work of dampening or even forgetting.

But there can be no forgetting; everything must be recalled. Otherwise, this time in jail will have been for nothing. Something tells me my failure to face this so far means I must face it ultimately. Only by having this unforgettable, enlightening brush with the penal system can I truly understand why so many people are in prison, all of them more wretched than I. There have been few to document the mental, physical anguish of this sad ordeal, especially the particulars, the thought-trains burned into the psyche, the self-analysis only a prisoner can know--the relentless analysis, the inner conversation, the obsessive thirsting for freedom.

A Chinese prison is a fearsome place, as all prisons in the world must surely be. My incarceration happened all too suddenly, since I had underestimated the price to be paid for publishing an independent literary journal in China. The contrast with my accustomed life of freedom was so great that it caught me totally unprepared. I am one for whom personal freedom is a precondition for survival. I am by no means a political stalwart: As I grow older, I find myself admiring heroes from afar, rather than following in their footsteps. I had not steeled myself to the thought of serving hard time in prison.

Late at night on Aug. 25, 2000, after transferring me from jail to the Public Security Sanitarium earlier that day, an official from Beijing Public Security suddenly informed me: I must board the next day's China Airlines flight to America at 12:45 p.m. I objected, maintaining that freedom was what I wanted. There were still things I needed to take care of, and I had no wish to leave Beijing. If I were released, I wanted to decide for myself when I would leave the country. But the police insisted that I leave for America. I had no choice.

In the early morning light, from a police car headed toward the airport, I gazed at the ordinary residential alleys, the unpretentious citizens, the bustling morning markets, and I suddenly felt tears streaming down and my breath coming in gasps. How could I break down like this? It was hard to let go of the city I knew so well, that I loved passionately, these surroundings of my youth, this city full of warmth. Would I ever again be able to seclude myself there, or roam its maze of streets or lead my mad life or sometimes harbor a mood of resentment? I felt a strong presentiment that perhaps I could never return. I was being cast away. "For this is my Beijing; this is the last of Beijing for me." This line of poetry, imprinted on my youthful memory, now came into my thoughts. It was a line written 33 years ago by Guo Lusheng, but now it sounded like a prophecy of my future.

In early October, I returned to the familiar yet strange city of Boston. At my parents' insistence, I cut off all communication with them and my brother Huang Feng, so they could get on with their lives in Beijing. This was a cruel blow to me but a demand I had to accept: It was the only way to relieve my family of fear, harassment and possible re-incarceration. The fax my parents sent me was at once a command and a plea; its heartless tone held a hint of resignation, leaving me no choice but obedience:

"You have the protection and concern of the American government. We are only ordinary people, without backing or protection. We want to go on leading our lives in China. Now your younger brother is your hostage in China; every move you make in America will affect him, and even our survival here in China. Huang Feng is 'on probation pending trial,' so he can be hauled in at any time. The effect on his work has been disastrous. We aren't doing much better ourselves. If you still have a conscience, if you haven't forgotten the promise you made the last time we saw you, you will refrain from having any connections with us in the future."

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