POET IN EX­ILE CHI­NESE DIS­SI­DENT'S JOUR­NEY

The Georgia Straight - - Front Page - > BY CHARLIE SMITH

One of the most dra­matic hu­man-rights sto­ries of the year con­cerned the widow of Chi­nese No­bel Peace Prize lau­re­ate Liu Xiaobo. Liu was jailed in 2008 and was later con­victed of in­cit­ing sub­ver­sion af­ter launch­ing a pe­ti­tion called Char­ter 08, which de­manded democ­racy, the rule of law, and an end to cen­sor­ship in China.

His widow, poet Liu Xia, re­mained un­der house ar­rest un­til her hus­band’s death last year.

But rather than spend the rest of her life liv­ing un­der th­ese con­di­tions in Bei­jing, Liu Xia was per­mit­ted to fly to Ber­lin in July, re­port­edly to seek med­i­cal treat­ment. The Chi­nese gov­ern­ment’s de­ci­sion to al­low her to leave the coun­try co­in­cided with ma­jor com­mer­cial deals be­ing reached be­tween Ger­many and China.

One of Liu Xiaobo’s close friends, Chi­nese poet Bei Ling, helped fa­cil­i­tate the trans­fer by cam­paign­ing for Liu’s widow’s re­lease. He wrote an open let­ter, coau­thored an ar­ti­cle in the Guardian, and gave in­ter­views to western me­dia out­lets, of­ten from his home in Tai­wan, where he lives in ex­ile from his beloved home­town of Bei­jing.

On Sun­day, as part of Tai­wan­fest, Bei Ling (a pen name) will be in Van­cou­ver to speak about how Liu Xia was freed—as well as his own ex­pe­ri­ence be­ing jailed in China.

“In the open let­ter, I said she’s a writer-artist, she’s not a po­lit­i­cal per­son,” Bei Ling told the Ge­or­gia Straight by phone from Bos­ton, where he was in tran­sit on his way to Toronto. “She only mar­ried a po­lit­i­cal per­son.”

Bei Ling wrote a book about Liu Xiaobo, which was trans­lated into Ger­man and helped the cause of Liu’s widow. Bei Ling also cred­ited Ger­man chan­cel­lor An­gela Merkel, say­ing her ex­pe­ri­ence grow­ing up in re­pres­sive East Ger­many pre­pared her for ne­go­ti­a­tions with the Chi­nese gov­ern­ment. In ad­di­tion, a high-pro­file Chi­nese writer in ex­ile in Ger­many, Liao Yiwu, also am­pli­fied con­cerns about Liu Xia’s fate.

Ac­cord­ing to Bei Ling, Liu Xia left China with 14 pieces of lug­gage, which in­cluded “all her mem­o­ries, her likes, and her hus­band’s things”.

Bei Ling’s story is equally dra­matic. In the 1990s, he was pub­lish­ing a lit­er­ary mag­a­zine in Bei­jing called Ten­dency. Dur­ing this pe­riod, he struck up friend­ships with many writ­ers out­side of China, due to be­ing an au­thor in res­i­dence at Brown Univer­sity, a vis­it­ing fel­low at Bonn Univer­sity, and a re­search as­so­ciate on mod­ern Chi­nese lit­er­a­ture at Har­vard Univer­sity.

One of those friends was Amer­i­can writer Su­san Son­tag, who sup­ported his ef­forts to pub­lish Ten­dency.

“She warned me that to bring this to China and print it may be dan­ger­ous,” Bei Ling re­called. “I told her, ‘It’s okay. It’s not a po­lit­i­cal mag­a­zine. It’s a lit­er­a­ture mag­a­zine.’ She said, ‘You have to be care­ful.’ ”

Bei Ling told Son­tag that the is­sue fea­tured the great No­bel Prize–win­ning Ir­ish poet Sea­mus Heaney, so there was noth­ing to be con­cerned about.

He was wrong. Chi­nese au­thor­i­ties ar­rested him in the sum­mer of 2000 and kept him in jail for two weeks for mak­ing an “il­le­gal pub­li­ca­tion”.

That’s when Son­tag demon­strated true friend­ship.

“Su­san di­rectly called [then sec­re­tary of state] Madeleine Al­bright,” Bei Ling said. “She says, ‘You have to help my friend Bei Ling, a Chi­nese ci­ti­zen, who’s spent sev­eral years in Amer­ica. He es­tab­lished a lit­er­a­ture mag­a­zine in Bos­ton and he needs to be re­leased.’ ”

Al­bright phoned China’s then vice-pre­mier, Qian Qichen, to ask why Bei Ling had to be kept in jail.

Ac­cord­ing to Bei Ling, the two gov­ern­ments en­gaged in ne­go­ti­a­tions and he was given a choice: leave jail and go into ex­ile or serve 10 years in prison. He was given two hours to make up his mind and 20 hours to leave the coun­try.

He re­luc­tantly de­cided to leave Bei­jing and was driven to his par­ents to bid them farewell and col­lect his be­long­ings. On his way to the air­port, he said, he closely stud­ied the land­scape, re­al­iz­ing that he might never re­turn.

Bei Ling rel­ishes his free­dom liv­ing in Tai­wan, de­scrib­ing the coun­try as civ­i­lized, car­ing, and cul­tur­ally so­phis­ti­cated. And he said that be­cause the Tai­wanese speak his na­tive lan­guage of Man­darin, he feels at home in the is­land na­tion.

He also in­sisted that Tai­wan is pos­si­bly the freest coun­try in the world. He said, for in­stance, that peo­ple can yell at po­lice of­fi­cers with­out feel­ing their wrath. He also pointed out that Tai­wanese stu­dents oc­cu­pied the leg­isla­tive cham­ber and ex­ec­u­tive of­fices of the Tai­wanese gov­ern­ment dur­ing the 2014 Sun­flower Move­ment.

“In any coun­try, even in Amer­ica, they will send you to jail for do­ing this,” Bei Ling said. “In Tai­wan, they let them stay there un­til they left by them­selves.”

Writer Bei Ling will speak at Tai­wan­fest about his ar­rest in China for pub­lish­ing a lit­er­ary mag­a­zine and be­ing forced to choose be­tween ex­ile or 10 years in prison.

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