The Magazine

Let a Hundred Flowers Be Crushed

The precarious lives of China's dissidents.

Dec 31, 2007, Vol. 13, No. 16 • By ELLEN BORK
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Pu told me that one year around the June 4 anniversary, when extra security measures are taken, some agents were assigned to sit in his law office all day. Pu left them in a conference room with a DVD playing The Lives of Others, the Oscar-winning film about an agent of the Stasi, the East German Ministry for State Security, who develops sympathy for the playwright he is spying on. Pu said he felt a little bad that the disc was pirated.

The afternoon the dissidents' letter was released in August, a security official telephoned Liu Xiaobo and asked to meet with him. Because Liu's wife, Xia, doesn't like having policemen in the apartment, they met at a tea house. Liu is in his early 50s, a bit gangly with a short, stubbly haircut and big glasses. In 1989, eager to show intellectuals' support for the demonstrators, he had returned from abroad to join the democracy protests. After the massacre, Liu had been detained for nearly two years. Then again in 1996, he'd been summarily sentenced to three years' "reeducation through labor"--a practice that allows for imprisonment without trial--for signing a letter that criticized President Jiang Zemin.

Liu received me in his living room and study, dark with books and decorated with his wife's paintings and photographs. One of her photographic subjects is dolls with distorted facial expressions. She gave me a stack of her pictures to look through. One of them showed a doll, as if gasping for air, with a sheet of plastic wrapped around its head. "That is from when he was in jail," she said.

I asked about the relationship between the dissidents and their minders. No one I'd spoken with had mentioned any instance of personal cruelty. Most, it seemed, had a story of kindness shown by a member of the security apparatus--though always when no one else was around.

Liu explained the difference between people's public and private face in China's Communist party dictatorship. Privately, people can behave decently. In public, people have to behave in a particular way to protect themselves. Each of the dissidents I met has broken with this convention of the system. All have chosen to merge their public and private selves as much as they can, by signing an open letter, talking freely about the Tiananmen massacre, or meeting me. They are waiting for the line to move far enough that to behave this way--to integrate one's public and private selves--is no longer an act of courage.

One day in Hangzhou, Wen and I had some time to kill. We spent a few hours on a boat on the lake on the west side of town. While our police detail stayed on the shore, Wen told me about a visit he'd had the year before. Liu Xiaobo, the literary critic I'd met in Beijing, and Liu's wife had come to see him. Tailed by police, they went to a scenic lake outside of Hangzhou. There was only one boat, and Wen had already rented it. The policemen came on board. The dissidents and the policemen sat in silence ten feet apart, floating on the water. At lunch later that day, Wen tried to pay the bill and discovered that the policemen had reciprocated for the boat ride by paying the check.

My trip ended without incident. At least, for me. In the months since I returned to Washington, however, two of the people I met but do not mention here have been arrested. I have an idea of what they did to cross the line, but it's hard to know for sure.

Ellen Bork works at the human rights group Freedom House.