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Digital Archive for Chinese Studies
Leiden Division

Introduction to Liao Yiwu

Liao Yiwu
by Michael Day

I now find myself in a difficult - even embarrassing - position.
My friend Liao Yiwu is not in prison, as previously and erroneously reported by western news sources.
As a former journalist, I should have known better?
However, if you were to enter Liao's name into Google, what will come up is nothing but December reports of his arrest.
Enter it in Chinese - 廖亦武 - and there are no such reports, but there is a published letter written to a Chinese dissident scholar in the US on December 24, 5 days after his supposed arrest.
This I discovered after I wrote the following article.
And not long after this discovery I received an e-mail from another friend in China saying that he had met with Liao in Beijing earlier this month.
I am not happy about this.
On December 18, I received an email from Liao saying that he had had his home searched, computer confiscated and charges read out to him by the Chengdu police. He stated explicitly that none of the recipients of that email should take any action unless further notified by him or someone else in Chengdu....
Clearly one of the recipients of the email did not heed Liao's words...

In the email, Liao said that the police had told him not to leave Chengdu.
But Liao has never paid any heed to the police since his release from labour camp in 1994.
The confiscation of his computer (actually his wife's, as she is the one who enters all his hand-written manuscripts into it) will not prevent him from doing what he does: Which is, as mentioned below, wandering the country interviewing, writing up and having published inside and outside of China the stories of the downtrodden victims of modern Chinese society. Twice - in 1999 and 2001 - Liao, under an assumed name, was able to find a publishing house willing to risk publishing collections of these interviews in book form. And, twice, the books have been banned, the printing houses closed, books confiscated, and printing proofs destroyed.
However, China being China, the fact that these interviews were sensational and rapidly found a wide readership, has led to the books being pirated and readily available from the itinerate booksellers that one can find on the streets of Chinese cities. Also, of course, the monthly Internet magazine, China Monthly 民主中国 (www.chinamz.org), has been serializing these interviews since January 2002, safe in its location in the USA. It is for this reason that Liao's computer was confiscated.
A pointless exercise really, but the police made their point I'm sure.
Just as pointedly, the overseas serialization of the interviews continues and Liao still wanders the country searching out fit subjects for his interviews.
Surely something has to give, and soon, but Liao seems not to care about what seems to be his fate - to be arrested and imprisoned once again.
And then what I have written below will be relevant again, and my rage and feelings of helplessness will be as complete as they then were.
So, this may be published now, I suppose... as a warning shot across the bows of the CCP? As a reminder that Liao Yiwu is known and remembered outside of China? Despite my frustration at having written it at an 'inappropriate' time.
The political atmosphere in China has improved greatly over when I first went to China in 1982. The Internet is pushing the limits of personal freedom out just that little bit farther. Certainly, some individuals have been arrested - and Liao seems a prime future candidate - but, in fact, the police seem to be nearly helpless. Nearly. ...
However, short of cutting all Internet contacts with the outside world, there is little the CCP can do. There is no desire on their part to return to the bad old days of Mao Zedong and the Gang of Four, to turn China into a pariah state, like North Korea, Burma or Iraq. There is - simply put - no profit in that for them.... And personal gain is what their China is all about, and is, in fact, the magic formula that keeps the CCP in power. So, a few troublesome, noisy individuals will be arrested from time-to-time, and the world will pay little attention, focusing instead on the economic and touristic opportunities China presents....despite Liao Yiwu's efforts to tell people the real, hidden stories of the losers in the CCP's little games.

Liao Yiwu is in jail again.
But who is Liao Yiwu?
Liao Yiwu is one of my best friends.
He is a Chinese who lives in Chengdu, the capital of Sichuan province.
He has been my friend since 1988.
I am a UK citizen born in Vancouver, Canada, who spent 7 years in China between the years 1982 and 1992, and has lived in Praha since 1997;
and he was born in Chengdu in 1959 and has spent over 4 years (and, again, counting...) in prisons and labour camps since 1990.
This time he was arrested on December 18, 2002 - a fact I didn't learn of till today from Reporters sans frontiers via a Google search (a month after the fact).
Again, I am very upset.
As I was in 1990.
The personal is truly political, especially in countries such as China is today, and as this country was prior to the winter of '89.
A tale of two countries then? No.
A story of what happens to users of the internet in China? Yes, and no.
A report of the fruits reaped by a man who interviewed, wrote up and had published in 2001 (and subsequently banned by the CCP) the stories of the downtrodden in China... people like himself, who for one reason or another find themselves the victims of life as it is designed and maintained in the minimally-socialist, utterly-totalitarian land of their ancestors.
For China is not, and has never been, a 'fatherland' or a 'motherland' - in fact the word used in China, 祖国 , means 'land of the ancestors', of the past, of a past that is all but dead, except for one of the last and greatest of all traditions: the tradition of using and abusing the mass of Chinese humanity for the benefit of a small ruling class and its retainers.
This is not a land that any well-meaning 'father' or 'mother' could possibly bequeath to their children, but a land ruled by the selfishly-defined interests of the dead (be they the First Emperor of Qin, the Dowager Empress Ci Xi and all those in between, Lenin, Sun Yat-sen, Chiang Kai-shek, Mao Zedong or Deng Xiaoping.)
But I digress...
I sit here at my laptop listening to Liao play his traditional flute on a CD another friend was recently able to bring out of China to me here in Praha.
Liao learned to play traditional flute music while in labour camp and even played it in friends' restaurants and bookstores after his release in 1994, until the authorities put a stop to it. Just as they prevented him from taking any form of gainful employment....
So, what did this apparently very dangerous man do to deserve all this 'special' treatment? Of course, he was a poet - traditionally detested and jailed by the rulers of China as they are.
In fact he was a very successful poet prior to 1989, which is why I made his acquaintance in the first place. I read some poetry I liked in an underground journal Liao had edited in 1987, wrote a letter and received a reply inviting me to come and visit him in his then home of Fuling, on the banks on the Changjiang.
However, on June 4, 1989 - with me again in residence in Fuling - Liao heard what was happening in Beijing on the BBC and did what no other poet in China did: he wrote an immediate, personal, surrealistic response in the form of a poem titled "Slaughter". Then he went on to produce a cassette-tape recording of his very dramatic reading of the poem (about 20 minutes in length, it was no short poem) and some other pieces he had written previously. I carried copies of the manuscript and the voice cassette to other poets in Sichuan and to poets in other parts of China during the summer of '89, and ultimately had these materials transported out of China.
Finally, however, Liao was not arrested for this.
In February and March 1990, he and 6 of his friends produced a performance-art video to go with a reading of another of Liao's poems written in response to the massacres in Beijing and Chengdu - Requiem for the Dead.
The day the video was completed, he and all his friends were arrested.
Ultimately, in October 1991, I was expelled from China. Two months later, after a minor media storm in the west, the 6 others were released, and Liao was sentenced to 4 years retroactive from the date of his arrest.
So, I haven't seen this friend of mine since 1989.
Nor did I have any direct contact with him...
until last December, over the internet. (I was convicted, in absentia, of being a cultural spy and agent of 'peaceful evolution' - terms which are a unique product of CCP paranoia - and therefore he was forbidden any form of contact with me.)
And about a month later he was arrested again.
Is it me?
No... Liao has been a very busy man since his release from labour camp in 1994 - he is the proverbial thorn in the side of the CCP.
While in prison Liao composed poetry which he later had privately published under the title of "Love Songs of the Gulag". Also, he had begun work on an epic 4-part prose work entitled "Go on Living", the final part of which primarily consists of a detailed, grim exposition of his experiences in China's gulags (the previous 3 parts consist of a personalized, surrealistic depiction of China under CCP rule.) Having friends with computers, he has been able to have all his work circulated despite a ban on official publication. However, this was a step he was led to take only after having all his hand-written manuscripts confiscated during a sudden search of his house in 1996, which forced him to rewrite the 200-pages of the final part of Go on Living.
Furthermore, in 1997 and 1998, he organised and edited 2 issues of an underground literary journal called "Intellectual", in which were published 2 parts of the aforementioned work of Liao's as well as the banned translated essays of one Vaclav Havel, still looked upon as a hero and role-model by Chinese intellectuals.
Also, since 1995 Liao helped to organize, or put his name to, several open letters of protest and criticism to the CCP, as well as helping to publicize individual human rights cases in Sichuan.
The story now is that the overseas publication of his interviews with some of the more remarkable victims of the CCP's 'new society' in Democratic China, a monthly journal (both in hard form and on the internet), has led to his arrest. These are in fact the charges that were read out to him in his own home the day before his arrest in December (as communicated to me in has last email). However, these interviews (collected by Liao since his days in the gulag) had been serialized in Democratic China for over a year. What had changed?
Simply put... the new minister of the Public Security Department is none other than Zhou Yongkang, the former governor of Sichuan, noted for his hard line on dissidents like Liao.....
Enough said.
The man must prove he is worthy of his new post in Hu Jintao's new government, no?
Unfortunately, for some, this technocratic game of musical chairs is highly harmful, and extremely personal.
As it is for Liao Yiwu.
As it is, thereby, for me.

So much for the hopes of democracy, human rights, etc. and so on, that the advocates of economic and technological change in China espouse.
60 million internet users are matched by over 20,000 internet police and all the latest internet surveillance equipment that China's best minds can develop and CCP money can import from the west - money made from trade with the west, and investment by the west in China.
I'm not optimistic about Liao's chances of being released any day soon.
He takes everything too personally to live freely in the CCP's China, with access to a computer, and friends like me.....
Taky je zivot. (Such is life.)

Rather let's close with one his prison poems....
as I suppose we can now expect more.
At least, he will be better able to deal with his experience this time....

New Year's Eve in Prison (1992)

New Year's eve
the sound of firecrackers beyond high walls
like the straps of 100 school-masters
beating the bottoms of children

A piece of shit is beaten out of my soul

At this moment the world's a big boat
we're all imprisoned in the hold
ears pressed to walls listening to the limitless sea
but an ocean of emptiness even broader than this
like an arrow passes through our hearts



Three days later and my anger is now tinged with worry and sorrow.
I've made a few corrections in the above, except for one which I'll talk about here...
I say that Chinese poets have always been persecuted, but this is far from true - in fact, a strong argument can be made that the very opposite is the case. Possibly, when I wrote the above 3 days ago, I let my western-ness and emotions run away with me. More likely I was influenced by my own experience of China - the arrest of Liao and several other poets I knew in Sichuan in 1989 and 1990, and my own expulsion from the country in 1991.
I do say that Liao was the only poet in China to respond immediately - and as a poet - to the massacres of June 4, 1989. This, in and of itself, says much for Liao and the state of poetry in the CCP's China. Certainly, at the time, there were several verses written by people not trained or hailed as poets, but none but Liao's were written by a 'poet' in China, and certainly none that addressed the subject so directly.
It can be argued that this had predictable results for Liao, as have his activities since his release from the gulags in 1994. A poet paying such a price for his beliefs, ideals and emotions is a very rare thing in China. Traditionally, as members of the very small and privileged intelligentsia, or literati, poets have acted, or aspired to be, officials within the ruling apparatus of the dictatorship (no matter which). They created beautiful artifacts that, with very few exceptions, refrained from any form of social criticism, or even social realism - except in times of civil war. To a large extent this is still true, and this is the primary reason Liao turned his back on poetry and poets in China after 1994.
My feelings of worry and sorrow are related to the questions of some of my friends here, who have asked if he will not be stripped of his citizenship and cast out of China like others in recent months and years. I have serious doubts about this because Liao is very different from exiles such as Wang Dan, Wei Jingshen and Xu Wenli (sent to the USA at about the same time as Liao was arrested in December.) They were purely political dissidents who now wander the globe speaking platitudes about freedom and democracy, and of vague future hopes for the people of China to ever dwindling audiences. Liao, on the other hand, has spent the past 8 years exposing the reality of silenced millions and their experiences in China. His published interviews of 60 such individuals, who, like Liao, suffer a life striped of nearly all rights, and his horrific, detailed expose of his own experiences in China's gulag archipelago, would be much more powerful and damaging to the image of China the CCP propagates outside the country than any platitude.
For these reasons, I fear that Liao will receive a very long sentence for his 'cyber-dissidence', his besmirching of the pristine image of China the CCP would have complacent Europeans and North Americans accept. The past year has seen sentences of 8 years and more being given to similar 'criminals' in China. Short of Liao being killed, I cannot see him being released anytime in the near future.
The only less-than-bleak side of this seems to be the fact that Liao is no stranger to the CCP's jails and gulags, and therefore may not suffer as much as he did the first time round....
Small comfort for me.
Even smaller for him.

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