Skip to content Skip to navigation

Bearing Witness to Suffering with the Pen of Freedom: A Preface to <em>Crossing the Iceberg</em>

June 4, 2009

Chen Ziming

After the June Fourth crackdown in 1989, Beijing police officer Sun Liyong called for the establishment of a special court to pursue the legal responsibility of those who ordered the killing. A “traitor” in his own ranks, Sun was sentenced to seven years in prison for “the crime of counter-revolutionary propaganda and incitement.” In his preface to Sun’s forthcoming memoir (Laogai Foundation, 2009), Chen Ziming, a participant in the 1989 Democracy Movement and a former fellow prisoner, provides a portrait of a man of indomitable spirit and great generosity to others even as he himself suffered brutal and dehumanizing treatment in prison.

Among the memoirs of prison experience in the 1990s by prisoners of conscience that I have read to date, Sun Liyong’s Crossing the Iceberg is the most comprehensive, accurate, and vivid. The book has fully and exquisitely captured and portrayed the three main types of characters in Chinese prisons: prisoners of conscience, ordinary criminals, and prison guards. Only someone like Sun, with his deep and extensive contacts with all sorts of people, could have written such a book. When I was in prison, under strict surveillance, I had very little contact with anyone; I could not have come to understand all the ins and outs of prison life.

After June 4, 1989, many thousands of prisoners of conscience and political prisoners were locked up in police stations and prisons all over China, which were overflowing with inspiring and tragic figures and events. Their commitment, tenacity, sense of righteousness, hidden strengths—Sun Liyong possesses all of these qualities. But his most remarkable characteristics are the tenderness in his strength, his bravery to accept responsibility, and his love for others. Whether in prison or out, he gives his all to help other prisoners of conscience and those around him.

Sun and I were fellow sufferers serving time in Beijing’s No. 2 Prison. He had been a policeman but following June Fourth he was moved by righteous indignation, and with several close friends, stood up without hesitation in that atmosphere of “red terror” and started the underground publications Minzhu Zhongguo [民主中国] and Zhongsheng [钟声], appealing for political reform and an official reassessment of June Fourth, and demanding the establishment of a special court to pursue the legal responsibility of those who had ordered the massacre of the crowd. Because of this he was sentenced to seven years for “the crime of counterrevolutionary propaganda and incitement.” Around 1993, during exercise time at No. 2 Prison, I ran into him many times. We spoke intimately through the metal fence, and every time as we shook hands before parting, he would quickly press a little piece of rolled-up paper he had prepared into my palm. In dense lines of tiny characters, he recorded the latest news he heard from Voice of America and other foreign broadcasts, particularly news regarding Wang Juntao1 and myself. From these pieces of paper that he took great risk to deliver to me, I was profoundly struck by the comradely and brotherly feeling from Sun Liyong.

In 1995, the first time I was released on medical parole, someone from Sun Liyong’s family saw my wife, Wang Zhihong, and gave her some information on Sun Liyong’s appeals. On the basis of this material, I wrote an article titled, “Introducing a Fellow Political Prisoner,” and published it in Beijing Spring2 under a pen name. The essay began with: “At present over 100 political prisoners are still being held in Beijing’s No. 2 Prison.

Besides Ren Wanding3 and others who are internationally known, there are many more political prisoners who are not known to people, but are equally deserving of respect. The majority of these are the so-called “thugs” [of June Fourth], including both zealous young people with a rich sense of justice, as well as elderly people. All of them have been given long sentences and some are in for life. They need greater attention from fair international public opinion. Also detained here are some editors of underground publications who were sentenced because they called for an official reassessment of June Fourth: Han Gang, 28, chief editor of Qi Pao Xian [起跑线], arrested July 1989, sentenced to 12 years; Chen Yanbin, 29, chief editor of Tieliu [铁流], arrested September 1990, sentenced to 15 years; Zhang Yafei, 28, editor at Tieliu, arrested September 1990, sentenced to 11 years; Shang Ziwen, 35, editor of Zhongsheng, arrested April 1991, sentenced to six years; Sun Liyong, 33, chief editor of Zhongsheng, arrested May 1991, sentenced to seven years. I have had direct contact with only one, Sun Liyong, whom I will introduce to readers in this essay.”The article ended with an appeal: “We believe that if there were thousands, or tens of thousands, of sons and daughters of China as outstanding as Sun Liyong, our goal of a democratic China would not be long in coming. On the eve of the sixth anniversary of June Fourth, we appeal to all descendents of the Yellow Emperor, in China or overseas, to show greater concern and support for Chinese political prisoners like Sun Liyong.”

When this essay appeared in Beijing Spring, I had just undergone surgery for cancer. I had already been put back in prison by the authorities. I returned to the eighth cell block of Beijing’s No. 2 Prison. During exercise, I walked back and forth beside the iron fence, waiting for Sun Liyong to appear again. But for a year and a half, until the time of my second “medical parole,” I still had not seen him again. How was he? What had happened to him? I feared for his life.

Only years later when I saw the manuscript of Sun’s Crossing the Iceberg did I come to know about what he had done and suffered in No. 2 Prison. Sun had organized some people to put together a complete list of political prisoners held in No. 2 Prison (including the so-called “participants in the two 1989 riots”4) and smuggled it out of the prison. The prison authorities, on the basis of crucial disclosures (by a jailed spy sentenced to 20 years), found out that Sun was the mastermind and organizer of this action and put him in solitary confinement for 183 days, subjecting him to inhuman treatment. I was in solitary for four months; he endured half a year. Also, he was in handcuffs and leg irons, chained together; this was how he spent this long period of time. Because of the chafing, the skin around the handcuffs and leg irons was completely ulcerated and the handcuffs had eaten deeply into his flesh. Bound up like this, Sun could not sit up. He could walk only as a dog does, arching his back and lifting his fetters. At meal time, he had to lap up his food with his tongue. Because his hands and feet had been chained together, he was unable to unbutton his pants to urinate and defecate normally. He had to tear open the crotch of his pants little by little, until they were open-bottomed like baby’s pants. Since his hands were bound and he could not reach, he had no way to clean himself after defecating, and this resulted in anal abscesses. The vile conditions of his life in solitary confinement also caused him inflammation of the middle ear, Meniere’s disease, high blood pressure, and many other medical problems. But even all this brutal torment could not make him surrender and abandon his ideals.

Sun had organized some people to put together a complete list of political prisoners held in No. 2 Prison (including the so-called “participants in the two 1989 riots”) and smuggled it out of the prison. The prison authorities, on the basis of crucial disclosures (by a jailed spy sentenced to 20 years), found out that Sun was the mastermind and organizer of this action and put him in solitary confinement for 183 days, subjecting him to inhuman treatment.

Sun Liyong’s indomitable spirit withstood the many trials of prison and he made prison his school. Using the limited study conditions available when he was not confined to solitary, he spent more than a year on a self-study course in law, reviewing the entire curriculum. He once said while in prison: “My aim in studying the law is to lay a better foundation to carry on the struggle when I get out. The democratization of China lies in the hands of our generation, and the greatest safeguard of democracy is the rule of law. Of course I am speaking here of long-term goals. As for short-term goals, I will be released in three more years, and though we face a totally irrational government, under international pressure and the demands of governing, they will yet talk with us and deal with us in the name of the ‘law.’ And in this way, yet higher demands will be made of us. Only through understanding of the law, through proficiency in the law, will we be more able to advance the democracy movement and better protect ourselves. We can give them a taste of their own medicine.”

Sun Liyong also took a great quantity of notes on life in prison, and figured out a way to get them out. They formed the basis of his book Crossing the Iceberg. The memoir, with its plain language, authentic detail, and touching story, bears witness to the “tip of the iceberg” of suffering in contemporary China. Its authenticity gives it incomparable and unique value. The author records the spirited resistance and wrongful convictions of himself and his comrades, Li Aimin, Shang Ziwen, and Jin Cheng following June Fourth. There are vivid portraits of his fellow-political prisoners Wang Zhongxian, Chen Yanbin, Hu Shigen, Lu Hongze, etc. He also provides a “prison still life” that includes depictions of ordinary prisoners and prison guards. Under Sun’s pen, neither criminals nor guards are shown as ferocious beasts; all are ordinary human beings of flesh and blood.

Under Sun’s pen, neither criminals nor guards are shown as ferocious beasts; all are ordinary human beings of flesh and blood.

The prison has every type of criminal. Apart from possessing the ugliness of all sorts that can be found in human nature, they maintain a childlike innocence of heart that has not been entirely extinguished. They are influenced and touched to some extent by their encounter with prisoners of conscience. Thus, unless they receive special instructions from the prison authorities, they normally get along well with the prisoners of conscience and express their admiration and respect for them. The prison guards are “tools of the dictatorship of the proletariat,” natural opponents of the prisoners of conscience in the political struggle. But among the prison guards there is no lack of traitors: Sun Liyong himself was a traitor in the ranks of the Chinese Communist police. In spiriting his list of counterrevolutionaries over the walls of No. 2 Prison and preserving it, these traitors played a role for which there is no substitute. The night that Wang Juntao and I went on hunger strike in our struggle in No. 2 Prison, our families were the first to get the news.

The prison has every type of criminal. Apart from possessing the ugliness of all sorts that can be found in human nature, they maintain a childlike innocence of heart that has not been entirely extinguished.

After his release in 1998, Sun supported himself through hard manual labor. He bore this burden in order to do all he could to help his fellow political prisoners, those still being held and those recently released. He opened a small bookshop, but was unable to get a business permit. He could only do business “illegally.” This ex-laogai-owned shop was a tricky problem for the authorities. They couldn’t close it down—that would only mean they had nothing on Sun Liyong. But if they didn’t close it down, it was still “illegal.” In the end, because there was no way to do business with a State Security vehicle parked in front of the door, the shop couldn’t make it, went broke, and closed down. When  his daughter started school, Sun could not even pay the tuition. When the “deprivation of political rights” period of his sentence ended, after long years of difficult negotiations, Sun finally received a

When the “deprivation of political rights” period of his sentence ended, after long years of difficult negotiations, Sun finally received a passport and went with a tour group to Australia, where he became a political exile far from his home shores. He didn’t understand English and had to do manual work. At first he supported himself by collecting bottles, then he worked for a moving company, carrying refrigerators, washing machines, and pianos up and down stairs.

passport and went with a tour group to Australia, where he became a political exile far from his home shores. He didn’t understand English and had to do manual work. At first he supported himself by collecting bottles, then he worked for a moving company, carrying refrigerators, washing machines, and pianos up and down stairs. . . . It was in such difficult circumstances that he and some like-minded friends formed an “Association to Support Victims of Political and Religious Persecution in China.” All of them contributed some of their hard-won earnings to assist political prisoners and their families in China.

Last August, I was invited to Australia by a friend, where I saw Liyong and other friends from the association and experienced for myself their warmth and generosity. I take this opportunity also to wish continued growth for the association, that it would bring warmth and hope to even more of those languishing in the cold and dark in China. Of course, I would wish even more that this group could achieve its historical task soon, and that China might soon welcome the light of democracy and freedom. This is what generations of those like the vanguard of June Fourth and people of lofty ideals like Sun Liyong dreamt of as they paid the price of prison, blood, even their lives.

Translated by J. Latourelle

Editor’s Notes

1. Wang Juntao (1958– ) is former co-editor in chief of Economic Weekly [经济学周报], a popular pro-reform publication. He was arrested in October 1989 for his participation in the 1989 Democracy Movement, and was later sentenced to 13 years’ imprisonment for the “crimes of plotting to overthrow the government and counter-revolutionary propaganda and incitement.” ^

2. A New York-based monthly journal founded in 1993 in New York by Chinese overseas democracy activists.^

3. Ren Wanding (1944– ), a human rights and democracy activist, was arrested on June 9, 1989, for his participation in the 1989 Democracy Movement. He was sentenced to seven years for “the crime of counter-revolutionary propaganda and incitement.” He was the recipient of the Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights Award in 1994.^

4. The Chinese government characterizes the events from April to early June 1989 as “political turmoil,” and the events in Beijing immediately preceding the government crackdown on June 3–4, 1989 as “counter-revolutionary riots.”^

Explore Topics

709 Crackdown Access to Information Access to Justice Administrative Detention All about law Arbitrary Detention
Asset Transparency Bilateral Dialogue Black Jail Book Review Business And Human Rights Censorship
Charter 08 Children Chinese Law Circumvention technology Citizen Activism Citizen Journalists
Citizen Participation Civil Society Commentary Communist Party Of China Constitution Consumer Safety
Contending views Corruption Counterterrorism Courageous Voices Cultural Revolution Culture Matters
Current affairs Cyber Security Daily Challenges Democratic And Political Reform Demolition And Relocation  Dissidents
Education Elections Enforced Disappearance Environment Ethnic Minorities EU-China
Family Planning Farmers Freedom of Association Freedom of Expression Freedom of Press Freedom of Religion
Government Accountability Government regulation Government transparency Hong Kong House Arrest HRIC Translation
Hukou Human Rights Council Human rights developments Illegal Search And Detention Inciting Subversion Of State Power Information Control 
Information technology Information, Communications, Technology (ICT) International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) International Human Rights International perspective International Relations
Internet Internet Governance JIansanjiang lawyers' rights defense Judicial Reform June Fourth Kidnapping
Labor Camps Labor Rights Land, Property, Housing Lawyer's rights Lawyers Legal System
Letters from the Mainland Major Event (Environment, Food Safety, Accident, etc.) Mao Zedong Microblogs (Weibo) National People's Congress (NPC) New Citizens Movement
Non-Governmental Organization (NGO) Olympics One country, two systems Online Activism Open Government Information Personal stories
Police Brutality Political commentary Political Prisoner Politics Prisoner Of Conscience Probing history
Propaganda Protests And Petitions Public Appeal Public Security Racial Discrimination Reeducation-Through-Labor
Rights Defenders Rights Defense Rule Of Law Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) Special Topic State compensation
State Secrets State Security Subversion Of State Power Surveillance Technology Thoughts/Theories
Tiananmen Mothers Tibet Torture Typical cases United Nations US-China 
Uyghurs, Uighurs Vulnerable Groups Women Youth Youth Perspective