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.”
Bei Ling will speak at 5 p.m. on Sunday (September 2) at the Orpheum Annex as part of TaiwanFest. The festival takes place in downtown Vancouver along Granville Street and at the Vancouver Art Gallery Plaza from Saturday to Monday (September 1 to 3).