Out of China's Grasp, I Fight the Fear and Silence
Sunday, August 26, 2001
Gao Zhan, a Chinese-born scholar at American University and a U.S. permanent resident, was detained by the Chinese government on Feb. 11 and imprisoned for more than five months in Beijing. On July 24, she was sentenced to 10 years in prison for allegedly spying for Taiwan, a charge she denies. Two days later, she was expelled from China and returned to the United States. In her first published essay since her release, she reflects here on the recent detentions of scholars visiting China.
Not long after I returned to my home in the Washington area from detention in China, my husband Xue Donghua took me and our son for a walk along the Potomac. With the sunset glowing on our shoulders, we strolled to the Franklin Delano Roosevelt Memorial near the Tidal Basin. I was immediately attracted to the inscriptions on the granite walls, especially to the one that bears President Roosevelt's Four Freedoms: freedom of speech, freedom of religion, freedom from want, freedom from fear. The music of the various fountains helped my thoughts to flow. For the first time since returning from my stormy ordeal in China, and still in the midst of the media mania, I felt enough tranquillity to think.
I found myself reflecting on the meaning of the fourth freedom in light of my case. Yes, I am free now, I thought, but am I really free of fear? My answer would have to be no. I fear for my family back in China, particularly now as I write about what happened to me there. My handlers warned me not to utter a word about my experience, and by speaking, I am aware that my relatives could face consequences.
I fear retribution from the Chinese government that has just persecuted me, because I could be subjected to an even dirtier blemish, since my tormentors are very good at that. I fear for my future because my good name has been smeared by a false charge, and many Chinese, including former friends in China and even in the United States, believe that I am indeed a spy as a result of the much-distorted reports by the Chinese media and brainwashing by Chinese propaganda.
I have to admit that, in a sense, I am as fearful now as I was in the Beijing detention facility, though for different reasons. For all those months, I feared my interrogators' fabrication of false evidence against me. I feared losing face among friends and acquaintances who love and admire me, because of the notorious nature of the false charge of espionage. I feared having to assume the moral responsibility if the stress of my alleged crime caused my parents' health to decline. I feared that I might never be able to return to the United States to rejoin my family. On the day that I learned of my 10-year sentence, I feared the worst: that my absence would break up my family.
My fear was personal, mundane even. It wasn't until after my release that I fully understood the broader nature of that fear and its consequences. It is the same fear that results in the poisonous collective silence in China and even in Taiwan, and in the Chinese people's tolerance of an oppressive regime. That understanding prompts me now to openly denounce my fears and my silence, as well as the silence of others.
It is only human nature to be fearful when locked up incommunicado. But what of the silence of family members?
Among the six people detained by Beijing this year was my husband, Xue Donghua, who waspicked up at the same time I was and held for 26 days. Immediately upon his release, he made the painful decision to defy injustice in China by initiating a plea for public attention to the issue in the United States. Unfortunately, he was the only family member to act quickly. Liu Yingli, the wife of detainee and fellow academic Li Shaomin, followed suit in June, after her husband had been detained for four months.
Ironically enough, it was fear that prompted the braveactions of Xue Donghua and Liu Yingli -- fear of losing their spouses. We have heard nothing from another former detainee, Qin Guangguang, or from his family, either before or since his release on July 26, nor from the families of several other known detainees with U.S. backgrounds who are still being held in China. Nor have we heard from Taiwan -- the supposed behind-the-scenes boss of the alleged spies -- which has never stood up either to claim responsibility, if what was alleged was indeed true, or to deny patronage of these pitiful spies. Silence -- whether institutional or individual -- helps create more fear. Since my own release, I have heard of many scholars, researchers and tourists who have canceled or postponed trips to China.
People may have good reason to remain silent in the face of violent intrusion into their personal liberty. But Hitler didn't kill 6 million Jews overnight. It was the initial silence of Germans, including Jews whose lives were yet to be taken, that helped bring about the Holocaust. Prior to the recent rash of detentions, mostly in Beijing, there were "hundredsand thousands" of innocent scholars, journalists, dissidents andstudents harassed, according to the testimony of Yale professor Kang Zhengguo at a congressional hearing last month on China's detention of scholars. They were hustled away from their homes or from the airport "for a chat" -- as was I, initially.
It is only since my release that I have understood the extent of the Ministry of State Security's ruthless detentions. Before, I didn't pay much attention. I am learning more through the stories of former detainees who are just now "coming out" of their psychological closets, such as Kang himself.
Kang was detained and interrogated for three days a year ago while visiting family members in China. His crime: endangering state security by mailing foreign journals to friends in China. He remained silent for a year and decided to speak out after my case hit the news. The events Kang described in his testimony before the House Committee on International Relations -- the long hours of interrogation, isolation, vague threats if he spoke about his ordeal after his release, psychological and emotional torture -- bear asurprising similarity to my own experience.
About a dozen other U.S.-based, Chinese-born scholars detained in years past have come out recently via the Internet. But much to my disappointment, they are using aliases. And some of the family members of current detainees who waited too long to ask for public help have now started to seek legal assistance or media attention from outside China. My attorney, Jerome Cohen, known for his masterful and pioneering expertise in Chinese law, was approached recently by several people whose loved ones are being detained in China. One, a sixtyishbusinessman/intellectual, has remained captive formore than 17 months awaiting indictment or release.
Too often, families try to secretly plea-bargain their way out under the Communist Party's instruction of "leniency for those who confess." Apparently, it often doesn't work, especially when there is nothing to confess.
Indifference is the by-product of silence. When detainees and their families are silent, the indifference of those who are in no imminent danger is hardly surprising. And silence and indifference, like a virus, are contagious. I believe I was stricken with that virus -- until my own detention.
Two years ago, Song Yongyi, a U.S.-based Chinese scholar, was detained in Beijing for "endangering China's state security" by shipping out of the country 30-year-old newspapers and documents on China's Cultural Revolution. Although I occasionally participated in rallies and in signing petitions in Song's defense, I wasn't angry or anxious enough to sound the alarm even to save my own research, conducted in and about China.
I regarded Song's case as an isolated event and assumed he had been professionally careless. I could have done better had I listened to the pleas of his brave wife, Helen, here in the United States, whose outspokenness, fueled by her own 101-day detention, later became a model for my husband. If not for my own painful 166 days in captivity, I believe I would have remained indifferent for quite some time. In this current wave of detentions, there are people out there who are still, in the words of a Chinese saying, "observing fire from across the river" -- remaining onlookers and minding their own business.
This is, unfortunately, traditional and typical Chinese conduct. Moreover, some among them, including people I know, share President Jiang Zemin's belief that once the secret police get you, you must be guilty of something. They might need to wait until they themselves have been snatched up to cry for the presumption of innocence.
Fear, silence and indifference join hands in the making of tyranny. The more we fear threats of retribution from an oppressive tyranny, the more relentless and ferocious the tyranny becomes. We must put fear in perspective. What is it that causes so much fear in the minds of the Chinese people?
It is the Chinese government's conduct that people fear the most. Its wanton assumption of the guilt of its own people; its arbitrary exercise of its "independent legal system"; and its abusive use of state machines in crushing individuals and their families who have different voices -- all have contributed to destroying people's sense of security. After all, it is the Chinese political and ideological system's lack of respect for each individual life that has deeply ingrained this fear in the minds of the Chinese people.
Can we stop being fearful? Yes, but not without taking individual responsibility in standing up -- and speaking out -- in the face of evil.
I now understand what Roosevelt meant when he said, "The only thing we have to fear is fear itself."