Ai Xiaoming: Thinking of My Friends in Prison

Ai Xiaoming is a documentary filmmaker, activist, and professor of modern Chinese literature at Sun Yat-Sen University. She posted this essay and photos to her blog [Chinese] on May 9, spurred by the detention of Pu Zhiqiang and others who attended a seminar about June 4th.

As I write these lines, I feel it’s at the same time sad and funny; like someone has died, and we’re at his or her memorial service. But the way I feel is no different than if I was memorializing a friend. At a memorial service, we cry, and then we must let go. The friend has gone to heaven. We can mourn all we want, but deep down we also know that no worldly power can do them further harm. However, as a living person locked away behind bars, as attorney Wang Quanping once experienced firsthand, one must learn to fart in silence and without smell, and endure all sorts of unimaginable evils—like being woken up in the middle of the night to answer baffling questions. Once you return to your cell, you will still be unable to sleep in peace, full of guilt for the hardships your loved ones must endure. Isn’t that worse than anything you can imagine?

Lately I’ve been missing the gentlemen Ding Jiaxi, Zhao Changqing, and Xu Zhiyong. Jiaxi is from Hubei. Last year during Spring Festival he visited me at my home. He left me with a Republican era-style tea tin, saying that this was the best tea he had ever had. I said, “Thank you! Now you don’t have to wait for the police to invite you to drink tea—you can invite yourself.” After Jiaxi lost his freedom, I frequently found myself staring at the desk where he once sat. This is where he used his computer, contacted friends, conversed loudly with this one and that one on Skype. I wonder if he misses his days of Twitter, Skype, and Google+? After Jiaxi was detained, I heard his wife and two daughters left China for somewhere free. I felt overjoyed at this news. But, on second thought, even lawyers can’t save money. Who sends Jiaxi money? Without money, this big attorney, a Beihang grad who loves to play tennis and golf, won’t even be able to afford instant noodles.

Image 1: Taken the first time I met Ding Jiaxi.

Image 1: Taken the first time I met Ding Jiaxi.

The arrest of Ding Jiaxi and others New Citizens is an absolute public catastrophe. But there are too few willing to help save others, and those who still try to help, fail. Just like that good man from Sichuan, Tan Zuoren. Everyone knew he was innocent, but what difference did that make? He was still sentenced to five years behind bars. When the earthquake hit Ya’an last year, my heart stayed in my stomach until I knew that Tan Zuoren was safe, that he hadn’t been smashed to death in his Ya’an jail cell. “Heaven is looking out for us!” I cried in relief.

I met these friends of mine at all sorts of occasions. Some I’ve interacted with briefly; with others, I’ve had very close contact. By brief, it could be as brief as meeting just one time; by close–does the mutual understanding between two people require language? Take Teacher Hu Shigen, for example, someone with the idealism and conviction to spend 16 years behind bars for freedom and democracy. Besides bowing to him in greeting, what use would my blather be? Through my lens, Teach Hu seemed content and comfortable, but I later saw pictures of him just after he got out of jail. His head of grey hair revealed the bitter truth of the hardship he had endured.

Image 2: Teacher Hu Shigen at a dinner party.

Image 2: Teacher Hu Shigen at a dinner party.

The first time I saw Zhao Changqing was probably around the time of citizen Wang Lihong’s trial. I was filming the crowd of onlookers outside, and this guy came up to the camera, his back to the meandering police officers and the cordon of standing plainclothes officers, and said with great joy, “I just got married! I came to give wedding candy to Elder Sister Wang!” In the summer of 2012, after the big storm in Beijing, he took me to the home of attorney Xiao Guozhen. There, I interviewed Lawyer Xiao; Changqing was fast asleep on the sofa. At that time his son Xiaoxiang had just been born, and he was probably taking care of the infant in his small apartment. He must have been exhausted.

Image 3: Zhao Changqing among the crowd outside Wang Lihong’s first trial, August 12, 2011.

Image 3: Zhao Changqing among the crowd outside Wang Lihong’s first trial, August 12, 2011.

Changqing and I once attended a dinner party put on by Ai Weiwei. At the party, I remember Changqing was talking about his desire for the unification of China. Ai Weiwei seemed perplexed and questioned these views; but Changqing remained unwavering, and added more explanation. In their words and mannerisms, the two were on completely different tracks, but their mutual admiration was apparent to everyone. Changqing’s personality gets at the profound idealism of the 1980s, an extremely rare trait in the world today.

Pu Zhiqiang came to Guangzhou to work on the Guangdong Aomeiding cosmetic injury case. He had an elegant demeanor, and the media already loved him. The handsome fellow only showed his timid side at the dinner table. Later, he explained that he suffered from diabetes and had to take injections daily. I remember he always carried a syringe with him. At Tan Zuoren’s second trial, in 2011, I was in Chengdu filming Lawyer Pu and Lawyer Xia Lin at work. This footage was later used in the documentaries Enemies of the State and Why Are the Flowers So Red? It was then that Pu started playing around with a video camera. Such a big man holding a small camera, he looked like a child playing with a toy. Not too long ago I saw his great work. I believe his film, with its interviews and other documentation of the Hunan shuanggui incident, is documentary work that is way ahead of its time. Although to some degree the work is just a collection of talking heads, it is truly a one of a kind piece of audio-visual testimony, and in that already holds sufficient value as a documentary.

Image 4: A still from the film Enemies of the State. The night before Tan Zuoren’s second trial, Pu Zhiqiang lead his friends in the “Graduation Song” at a dinner in Chengdu.

Image 4: A still from the film Enemies of the State. The night before Tan Zuoren’s second trial, Pu Zhiqiang lead his friends in the “Graduation Song” at a dinner in Chengdu.

I’ve previously read some work by Teacher Xu Youyu. A few years ago, while I was searching for a missing friend, I interviewed Youyu. He lived in a residential tower in suburban Beijing. It was quiet and peaceful. We conducted our discussion in his study, which overlooked rows and rows of buildings. Later, his wife came home. She is a medical professional and goes to work everyday. We went to eat at a nearby Sichuan hotpot restaurant, and then Youyu helped carry my camera bag all the way to the entrance to the subway station. There’s no need for me to comment on Youyu’s scholarship—everyone knows about that. But in my impression of him, Youyu is truly a good man. It’s not everyone who will help you carry your camera to the subway ticket counter and watch until you’re out of sight, you know?

This was the only direct contact I’ve had with Youyu. But such brave and dutiful scholars are  rare. He and Professor Hao Jian were no doubt arrested because they, Hu Jia, and other friends breached the blockade to visit Liu Xia last year. From the video we released at the beginning of last year, you can see how moved and how shocked Liu Xia was to see these friends. To Liu Xia, Youyu is like a trusted brother.

It was about April 2009 when I was in Beijing having dinner with Cui Weiping, Xu Youyu, and Liu Xia. I remember attorney Mo Shaoping was also there. Weiping and Youyu were telling Liu Xia about receiving an award in Prague, while not far away state security agents watched us. Liu Xia was still free at the time. I even interviewed her that day. Liu Xia said that to record an audio message for her, the old master Youyu took the recorder and practiced over 20 times. Was his message that big of a deal? Not really. But as the cordon is tightened year by year, it shows a lot about how much you value a friendship to visit Liu Xia in the flesh; in all of China, how many people would actually do something this?!

Liu Xia.

Liu Xia.

Teacher Hao Jian is a colleague of mine; we both study film. Last year we chatted inside a cute café at the Film Academy. I’ve also ridden in his car. I’m quite jealous of the sharp little camera he owns. A relative of Hao Jian lost his life that bloody night 25 years ago. If I remember correctly, I believe it was a younger male cousin.

I just remembered that on the evening of the last day of Tang Zuoren’s trial, I bought a baked sweet potato for Lawyer Pu. Because of his illness he can’t eat much at one time, so he gets hungry often. And now he’s in a detention center. You think he’s eating many small meals a day? Forget about it.

And then there’s Little Mouse, Liu Di, an alumna of my university. That day in 2009, after we finished eating, he and Liu Xia embraced as we parted ways. The three of us went back to Cui Weiping’s house together. I was naïve; I never really believed that we were being followed. But sure enough, as we were transferring to Line 13, there were two people with vague expressions on their faces getting on with us. These two poor saps followed us on every twist and turn to Weiping’s neighborhood. In her home was the grass-mud horse I had brought her from Guangzhou. Weiping got up very early to do morning exercises by herself. After she finished, she sat down at her big desk to read and write.

A few days ago I read the most ironic WeChat post: “Beijing No. 1 Detention Center ushered in the most glorious day in its history as some of the most influential figures from the legal, academic, and religious worlds, Pu Zhiqiang, Xu Youyu, Hao Jian, Liu Di and Hu Shigen, arrived and conducted cordial exchanges with the police.”

These friends of mine are the best kind of Chinese person: lovable, kind-hearted, possessing an aesthetic charm. But these people have been detained, one after another. At the very least, the authorities have successfully achieved one goal: that is, to fill with stifled emotions people like me who miss and admire those in custody. As I wake up in the morning and sit down in front of my computer, I can’t even get on Google+. A miserable view of the world swells inside me. What kind of world is this? One that is not worth feeling attached to or going on living in. Yet we are forced to live because of our of cares and responsibilities.

So as I watch Xu Zhiyong’s detention center video, I can’t help but think that his zest for life is much greater than many of ours. He strives for humanity and kindness. And there are many people like him in this way. Even though no one wants to be detained, now that Xu is faced with this reality, he faces it with calm. Xu Zhiyong, Ding Jiaxi, Guo Feixiong, Li Huaping, Liu Ping, and the five friends who were arrested this time… For Teacher Hu Shigen, I’m afraid it’s even worse, as this is something he has dealt with before. How could imprisonment possibly change him? To be willing to give up your freedom–their sacrifice allows those of us who have never spent time in jail to understand what it means to live on a whole other level. Our era needs people like this—freedom fighters.

I believe that China should have a team of lawyers, not to get activists released from custody while awaiting trial, but to directly prosecute the institutions and policymakers that detained them. After all, locking up innocent people, frightening every citizen who has a sense of justice… is this all just fun and games?

Because of this, I admire my friends behind bars even more. I believe that all who yearn for social justice must shoulder a small part of their burden. Just as the memorial service clichés go: Convert your grief into power; say everything you need to say; keep on walking the road you must travel. Just like the picture of bodies on Mount Everest I reposted a couple of days ago, these are all road signs, dead bodies along the path to the Everest summit. Just like this, we must trudge on without hesitation, and let those who will come after us come looking for our green boots.

Translation by Little Bluegill.