“I began to talk about Thoreau’s essay on civil disobedience, but quickly felt like a ridiculous pedant. What’s the point of talking about the virtues of civil disobedience in a Beijing police station?”
So wonders Murong Xuecun, a Chinese author who was interrogated by the Chinese secret police for seven hours and wrote about it for the New York Times.
He was asked to come to the police station “for a chat” by the guobao after reading an essay at a private commemoration of the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre. Others who had contributed had been arrested already. And so Murong voluntarily attended the meeting and found himself in a shoe-print-covered room discussing the nature of the law with two officers.
“We discussed whether citizens ‘must obey the law,'” Murong wrote. “I said good laws should be obeyed but evil laws must be challenged. They strongly disagreed, insisting that the law must be obeyed whether it’s good or evil. ‘And you’re a graduate of the China University of Political Science and Law, eh?’ the younger one asked mockingly.”
In the end, after signing a transcript of the conversation, Murong—whose real name is Hao Qun—was released. In this respect, Murong got off pretty lightly. In 2011, the artist Ai Weiwei was detained for 81 days and interviewed more than 50 times. Officers watched him round the clock, their faces just inches from his, even as he slept—insisting he keep his hands on top of the blanket throughout the night. After 14 days, he was moved to an army base where everything was padded with foam, even the taps.
In an excerpt from Hanging Man: The Arrest of Ai Weiwei, Ai says:
“When you go to pee you have to raise your hand and say, ‘Sir I need a pee.’ They have to say yes before you can even stand up. Then you can stand up but they have to go with you, in this tiny room. One person before you, one behind. One goes to the bathroom door. He stamps his feet and turns round and looks at you and then goes backwards into the bathroom. Then you go in. Between the two of them. The other one follows you in. Stamp, stamp. Then you start to pee. Then they look at your dick because, you know, they have to make sure it’s really a dick. It’s true! This is their regulation and there’s also a camera in the bathroom. They are being watched. After peeing you report to the soldier, ‘Sir, I have to wash my hands.’ If you don’t say anything they say, ‘Report!’ So you say, ‘Report, sir, I have finished washing my hands. Can I go out?’ They say yes, then one goes backwards. Stamp. You go backwards and again the other one stamps feet and follows. This is total full protection. You cannot make any single strange move.”
It’s taxing to even be a family member of a detained dissident. In 2010, two days after her husband Liu Xiaobo was awarded the Nobel Peace prize, Liu Xia—who has never been charged with anything—was confined in her home and internet and phone connections were cut off. Two years later, two reporters from the Associated Press managed to sneak into her Beijing apartment and upon seeing them, she burst uncontrollably into tears.
“I felt I was a person emotionally prepared to respond to the consequences of Liu Xiaobo winning the prize,” she said. “But after he won the prize, I really never imagined that after he won, I would not be able to leave my home. This is too absurd. I think Kafka could not have written anything more absurd and unbelievable than this.”
This is merely a snapshot of what it’s like to be a dissident in China, which has a vast infrastructure to deal with people who don’t agree with the Communist Party’s way of doing things—including black jails, where people from the provinces who come to the capital to complain are locked up. At least publicly, the Party has said it is committed to closing down some of this apparatus. In 2013, it announced that it will abolish lao jiao—re-education through manual labor—as part of a 60-point plan to reform the judicial system.
But as Murong learned when he left the Beijing police station, the secret police aren’t going anywhere anytime soon.
“We appreciate you turning yourself in,” they told him, “but the law is the law, and while we will not let any miscreants off the hook, we will never treat good people unjustly. Do you understand?”