The night before I was to be released from a Beijing prison in August 2000, I had a conversation with a high official in the Beijing Public Security Bureau that I will never forget.
Tall, thin and well-educated, this officer had overseen the cases of many dissidents before me. For 10 hours, we sparred in a room clogged with our own cigarette smoke. Then the officer turned friendly. He told me I was to be released, to be returned to the United States the next day. He reminded me of how lucky I was. The U.S. government had saved me.
He then brought up the name of dissident Xu Wenli and told me that the Chinese government had been hoping for a while to send him out of the country. The U.S. government, however, was no longer interested in dissident cases such as Xu's. Intellectuals were now more important.
Since my release, each time U.S.-China relations come to a standstill, each time a Chinese dissident or intellectual is arrested, my life stops. In the midst of my everyday uselessness, I suddenly feel the need to make myself useful.
If I were in China, there would be plenty of things I could do: collect donations for the relatives of those imprisoned, have those relatives pass my support and information on during prison visits, share news that the Western world takes for granted.
There are plenty of newspapers in China, piles of magazines, countless television programs. Everything your everyday man or woman in China might need to know to secure a comfortable life, to make themselves beautiful, to fulfill their dreams. It's all within the glossy covers of the Chinese versions of Elle and Mademoiselle, splashed across the pages of the Beijing Evening News or suggested in the most recent soap opera.
When it comes to news of international proportion, however, of China's political image on the world stage or its stance on human rights, the newspapers are one-sided or don't comment at all, the magazines empty and the airwaves ruled by the legal system.
News of political dissidents is stifled; the works of independent intellectuals and underground writers are banned; the public learns nothing of the countless intellectuals and writers arrested and imprisoned each year. This is the news I could pass on to my friends. If I were in China.
Instead, because I was arrested in Beijing for publishing "illegal and unlicensed publications," imprisoned and deported to the United States, I can no longer do any of this. So here on a balmy day in Boston, I read the newspapers, I scan the Web sites for the latest information on China, I flip on the news from Taiwan at 11 a.m., international news at 6 p.m. and one last news show at 11 p.m.
Hidden below the paragraphs detailing U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell's visit to Vietnam and Beijing and the photos of the recently released Gao Zhan and Li Shaomin, a few lines catch my eye. On July 27, the day before Powell arrived in China, 35 Chinese dissidents wrote an open letter to Powell. These former political prisoners and dissidents requested that the U.S. government give special attention to the case of the imprisoned Xu Wenli and that he be freed and immediately provided with medical attention. This story never made Western newspapers, probably never even passed across an editor's desk.
Twenty years ago, I was a university student and a minor participant in the Democracy Wall movement in Beijing. Xu Wenli was my hero. As one of the founders of the underground democratic journal named "April 5," which memorialized the April 1976 events when a million people poured into the streets of Beijing to protest Mao's rule, Xu was sentenced as a counterrevolutionary and spent 12 years of a 15-year sentence (1981-1993) in prison. Xu was released to influence the U.S. debate on most-favored-nation status for China.
Xu is the most important dissident leader of the last 20 years. He is the face of the Democracy Wall movement and, with Wei Jingsheng, Ren Wanding, Liu Qing and Wang Xizhe, the victim of that movement. Wei, Liu and Wang all spent at least 10 years in prison. All except Ren left China during the 1990s. Xu is the longest-held prisoner of that original movement.
In 1998, when he became chairman of the newly founded China Democratic Party, Xu was again arrested and sentenced to 13 years in prison.
I first met Xu 20 years ago. We met again on New Year's Eve 1994 during my first trip home to China since I had left five years earlier. Xu had just been released from prison. The warmth of his personality struck me; his every move, each word, his calm, kind demeanor emanated the qualities of a true leader.
Xu suffers from hepatitis B; his legs and waist have been dangerously swollen for two months now. He has lost all of his teeth. I don't know if he'll make it through the next 10 years in prison.