By Liao Yiwu, the author of God Is Red and The Corpse Walker. This essay was translated by Wen Huang from the Chinese (THE NEW YORK TIMES, 15/09/11):
Yunnan province, in southwestern China, has long been the exit point for Chinese who yearn for a new life outside the country. There, one can sneak out of China by land, passing through pristine forests, or one can go by water, floating all the way down the Lancang River until it becomes the Mekong, which meanders into Myanmar, Laos, Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam.
So each time I set foot there, in a land where red soil gleams in the sun, I turned restless; my imagination ran wild. After all, having been imprisoned for four years after I wrote a poem that condemned the Chinese government’s brutal suppression of student protesters in 1989, I had been denied permission to leave China 16 times.
I felt very tempted. It doesn’t matter if you have a passport or visa. All that counts is the amount of cash in your pocket. You toss your cellphone, cut off communications with the outside world and sneak into a village, where you can easily locate a peasant or a smuggler willing to help you. After settling on the right price, you are led out of China on a secret path that lies beyond the knowledge of humans and ghosts.
Until earlier this year, I had resisted the urge to escape. Instead, I chose to stay in China, continuing to document the lives of those occupying the bottom rung of society. Then, democratic protests swept across the Arab world, and posts began appearing on the Internet calling for similar street protests in China. In February and March, there were peaceful gatherings at busy commercial and tourist centers in dozens of cities every Sunday afternoon. The government panicked, staging a concerted show of force nationwide. Soldiers changed into civilian clothes and patrolled the streets with guns, arresting anyone they deemed suspicious.
Meanwhile, any reference to Tunisia’s Jasmine Revolution (and even the word jasmine) was censored in text messages and on search engines. The police rounded up human rights lawyers, writers and artists. The democracy activist Liu Xianbin, who had served nine years in prison for helping to form the China Democratic Party, was given a new sentence of 10 years. The artist Ai Weiwei vanished in April and has lived under close government surveillance since his release in mid-June.
An old-fashioned writer, I seldom surf the Web, and the Arab Spring simply passed me by. Staying on the sidelines did not spare me police harassment, though. When public security officers learned that my books would be published in Germany, Taiwan and the United States, they began phoning and visiting me frequently.
In March, my police handlers stationed themselves outside my apartment to monitor my daily activities. “Publishing in the West is a violation of Chinese law,” they told me. “The prison memoir tarnishes the reputation of China’s prison system and ‘God Is Red’ distorts the party’s policy on religion and promotes underground churches.” If I refused to cancel my contract with Western publishers, they said, I’d face legal consequences.
Then an invitation from Salman Rushdie arrived, asking me to attend the PEN World Voices Festival in New York. I immediately contacted the local authorities to apply for permission to leave China, and booked my plane ticket. However, the day before my scheduled departure, a police officer called me to “have tea,” informing me that my request had been denied. If I insisted on going to the airport, the officer told me, they would make me disappear, just like Ai Weiwei.
For a writer, especially one who aspires to bear witness to what is happening in China, freedom of speech and publication mean more than life itself. My good friend, the Nobel laureate Liu Xiaobo, has paid a hefty price for his writings and political activism. I did not want to follow his path. I had no intention of going back to prison. I was also unwilling to be treated as a “symbol of freedom” by people outside the tall prison walls.
Only by escaping this colossal and invisible prison called China could I write and publish freely. I have the responsibility to let the world know about the real China hidden behind the illusion of an economic boom — a China indifferent to ordinary people’s simmering resentment.
I kept my plan to myself. I didn’t follow my usual routine of asking my police handlers for permission. Instead, I packed some clothes, my Chinese flute, a Tibetan singing bowl and two of my prized books, “The Records of the Grand Historian” and the “I Ching.” Then I left home while the police were not watching, and traveled to Yunnan. Even though it was sweltering there, I felt like a rat in winter, lying still to save my energy. I spent most of my time with street people. I knew that if I dug around, I could eventually find an exit.
With my passport and valid visas from Germany, the United States and Vietnam, I began to move. I shut off my cellphone after making brief contacts with my friends in the West, who had collaborated on the plan. Several days later, I reached a small border town, where I could see Vietnam across a fast-flowing river. My local helper said I could pay someone to secretly ferry me across, but I declined. I had a valid passport. I chose to leave through the border checkpoint on the bridge.
Before the escape, my helper had put me up at a hotel near the border. Amid intermittent showers, I floated in and out of dreams and awoke nervously to the sound of a knock on the door, only to see a prostitute shivering in the rain and asking for shelter. Although sympathetic, I was in no position to help.
At 10 a.m. on July 2, I walked 100 yards to the border post, fully prepared for the worst, but a miracle occurred. The officer checked my papers, stared at me momentarily and then stamped my passport. Without stopping, I traveled to Hanoi and boarded a flight to Poland and then to Germany. As I walked out of Tegel airport in Berlin on the morning of July 6, my German editor, Peter Sillem, greeted me. “My God, my God,” he exclaimed. He was deeply moved and could not believe that I was actually in Germany. Outside the airport, the air was fresh and I felt free.
After I settled in, I called my family and girlfriend, who were questioned by the authorities. News about my escape spread fast. A painter friend told me that he had gone to visit Ai Weiwei, who is still closely watched. When my friend mentioned that I had mysteriously landed in Germany, Old Ai’s eyes widened. He howled with disbelief, “Really? Really? Really?”