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Hostage to history

July 8, 2000

Cultural revolution researcher detained and released



Last year, US-based historian Song Yongyi was suddenly detained by the Ministry of State Security. His case aroused deep concern among academics, particularly in the United States, as it appeared to be related entirely to his research on the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976). Song, the co-author of two books on the topic, The Cultural Revolution: A Bibliography, 1966-1996 (in English) and Heterodox Thought During the Cultural Revolution (in Chinese), was finally freed after an international campaign. Human Rights in China (HRIC) spoke to him about his experience and how it changed his thinking.








HRIC: Mr. Song, you seem like a typical scholar. When you were arrested on your last trip to China and accused of endangering state security while attending conferences and conducting your research, I was very surprised. Can you describe what happened to you?

Song Yongyi: On July 1999, my wife and I returned to China to visit our relatives and to do some research and attend academic conferences. On the evening of August 6, at the hotel in Beijing where we were staying, on my way back to our room after seeing some friends off, I was arrested by several policemen in plain clothes. They stopped me and asked for my name. After making sure that I was Song Yongyi, they took me to the Ministry of State Security for interrogation. It happened just like that! Without any warning, I was arrested and taken away. Later, I learned that a few minutes before my arrest they had also taken away my wife, Yao Xiaohua.

When they detained me they showed a summons, which according to Chinese law allows only 12 hours’ detention. Since they were in a rush, they interrogated me all night long. They wouldn’t let me sleep. At about four or five o’clock in morning, I refused to speak any more. In this way, I forced them to stop. At 11 o’clock the following morning, they changed the procedure, using “criminal detention” in the place of the original summons, in order to extend my detention.

I asked them why they had taken me in. They answered, “ You know what you have done. You tell us why you’ve been arrested.” Their attitude was impervious to reason. In addition, they told me, “This is the Ministry of State Security. We don’t arrest people at random. If you don’t cooperate with us, it will be very difficult for you.” They even threatened me that I might never leave there again.

In the following months, they interrogated me repeatedly. They asked me to confess that I had damaged state security, particularly concentrating on my research about the Cultural Revolution.

My wife was released in November. I was detained in all for more than six months. During the course of my detention, the security police failed to find that I had committed any crime. And at the same time, the international community put pressure on the Chinese authorities. Then on January 29 this year, the Chinese authorities took me directly from my place of detention and put me onto a Northwest airplane. I was finally “repatriated” to America. They declared that I was exempted from each and every charge.

HRIC: Some reports said that during your detention later on the formal procedure for holding you was changed from “criminal detention” to “supervised residence.” How did this change come about?

SY: On August 7, 1999, they detained me. According to the law 30 days is the maximum term for criminal detention. On September 7, the security people were left with two legal options; either they had to arrest me formally or extend my detention.

Since they couldn’t come up with any evidence to demonstrate my guilt, the law should have obliged them to let me go. But they were not willing to do this.

After the first two weeks of my detention, they made a report to the Beijing Procuratorate asking for my formal arrest. But this report was rejected. Even so, they still didn’t want to release me. So there was only one choice left: to extend my detention. That was why they changed the form of my detention to “supervised residence” (jianshi juzhu).

According to Chinese law, supervised residence should be carried out at the detained person’s home, and the liberty of the person should only be restricted but not eliminated entirely. Though I do not live in Beijing, my elder brother’s home is there. But they wouldn’t let me stay at my elder brother’s place. They kept both my wife and myself in the basement of their office, in separate rooms at the two ends of a long hallway. We were under watch around the clock. Therefore, in fact, we were stripped of all liberties. What they did to us was against the law. I protested but received no response.

HRIC: During this time, did they torture you or threaten you in any way?

SY: Physically they didn’t torture me, but they subjected me to extreme mental cruelty. They kept my wife as a hostage. They told me that her release depended on how I cooperated with them. This was a great worry to me, mental torture.

They enjoyed playing tricks on us. Once when they were interrogating me, they kept the door open, someone kept coming in and handing pieces of paper to the interrogator. The intention was to imply that my wife was being questioned in the next room and had revealed something to them. They told me that my wife had said I got up one morning at 3:00am to read some Falungong books. They asked me where I had hidden those books, saying: “Your wife told us you have maintained very close ties with the Falungong group.” I answered that if they accused me of doing research on Cultural Revolution, I would admit it, but if they accused me of having something to do with Falungong, I would never admit it. I demanded that they bring my wife and I together, face to face, to sort out the whole thing. Of course, they wouldn’t do this.

HRIC: I read that the Chinese authorities would not allow you to retain a lawyer, because your case involved “state security.” Is this correct?

SY: On the very evening when I was arrested, though I asked to engage a lawyer, they just ignored my request. But publicly they stated that I had never asked for a lawyer.

After my formal arrest, once again I requested to meet with a lawyer. Finally they gave me some application forms to fill out.

Chinese law stipulates that relatives can retain lawyers for an arrested person. My elder brother got help from a famous American lawyer, Jerome Cohen, in engaging a local lawyer for me. That lawyer immediately asked to visit me, but they refused, claiming that there was an “internal” rule forbidding it. From then on, that lawyer phoned them every day. In the end they stopped answering the phone.

I also asked to see the lawyer. They told me that during the interrogation period I was not allowed to see any lawyers.

At that time, I had already read about six or seven Chinese law books. I knew that there was no such provision. I argued with them, using the Chinese law to support my views. They admitted that they couldn’t refute my argument, and they also said that they knew nothing about the Cultural Revolution. But they added: “Even if you win at trial, you will still be convicted.”

HRIC: What did your interrogators seem most interested in?

SY: I would say that the American way of life interested them the most, especially the younger ones. But people of all ages expressed a similar curiosity about the United States. I remember after interrogating me one day, a person of around 40 asked me to stay for some tea and a chat with him. He told me he had a son, and that some day in the future, he wanted his son to go to the United States to study. He asked me many questions about life there. This indicates a yearning for the American way of life.

Secondly, they kept asking me about the Association for Asian Studies, for instance: was it related to the CIA? Who was the chairman of the association? They didn’t recognize it as an academic institution. You can tell from the questions, how very ignorant they all were, and what a mess the interrogation was.

Thirdly, they asked me about the materials and books I had bought. I answered them truthfully: all the printed materials and books were advertised in Chinese newspapers. They were all totally legal, and so was my buying them. There was nothing secret about it.

HRIC: Many Sinologists were involved in obtaining your release, such as the former US National Security Adviser, Michel Oksenberg. Why do you think they got involved?

SY: [In March] I met with Mr. Oksenberg at Harvard University. He mentioned that my case made him recognize how serious the human rights situation in China is. Previously people like him paid little attention to the imprisoned Chinese democracy and human rights activists. They thought that these people were involved in political actions, and they had no access to other people who were in jail. Now, my case showed them that engaging in academic work could be as dangerous as becoming involved in political activities. These scholars like Oksenberg knew that I had never participated in the Chinese democracy movement, and all I cared about was my research on the Cultural Revolution.

I met once with the editorial board of the Washington Post. They pointed out that when one had had an experience of having one’s rights violated, one would then become concerned about human rights issues.

Hearing that gave me much food for thought. Just a little over half a year ago, I paid very little attention to the problem of human rights. The American newspapers described me as a scholar, meaning that I was shut in my study, taking no notice of what was happening outside. Indeed, this was quite true. But my experience in prison has taught me a lot. Now I ponder problems, taking much wider views and thinking more deeply. Therefore, not only should I be active in human rights activities, but also as a thinking person it is my obligation to be concerned about rights. Nowadays, when I see other academics paying no attention to such things, I want to wake them up.

HRIC: Your case not only makes academics realize how serious the problem is, but also warns them that they run the risk of imprisonment merely for doing research in China. Could your arrest have been a warning or threat to intellectuals in the West?

SY: Yes, I think so. This is what has happened. A feeling of unease is apparent in Western academic circles.

I was arrested to set an example. There is an old Chinese saying, “kill the chicken to frighten the monkey.” I was the chicken, they arrested me to warn other monkeys. They used my case to let scholars know that if they hadn’t approved their research they could arrest them.

But the Chinese authorities didn’t expect the chicken’s neck to be strong enough to defeat them. My case has caused the Ministry of State Security to be more cautious. In the future when they arrest people they will be more careful. This is good. The bad effect is that although I was released, intellectuals in the West are left with a lingering fear.

A novelist, a friend of mine, said that if my research topic is considered sensitive then he would not know what he can write about. Two professors in Chicago, who are doing research about the June Fourth Movement of 1989, are very worried too. Compared to the Cultural Revolution, their topic is a lot more sensitive.

Nevertheless, I feel my arrest was related in some way to the Chinese authorities’ frustration about dealing with Falungong members. Indeed, the Chinese authorities were disturbed and confused, but this was a result of their own stupidity.

HRIC: In the light of your experience, what thoughts do you have on the need for reform in China? What aspects of the system are most in need of reform?

SY: I think this need is greatest in the area of free speech in the broad sense, including freedom of expression and academic freedom. Hu Ping [a dissident theorist living in the United States] once pointed out in an article that there are two kinds of liberties. One type are those that require the government to do something, such as family planning, which needs the government’s involvement. The other kind requires that the government refrain from doing something. The freedom of speech belongs to the latter category, and thus it should be easy to achieve, as it merely requires that the government stop interfering.

Moreover, action should be differentiated from pure speech. For instance, in my case, they accused me of posing a great danger to the state security of China. I asked them three questions:

“First, between my book and articles on the Cultural Revolution itself, which really caused harm? How many people died in the Cultural Revolution? According to official reports, more than four million people died and more than one hundred million suffered in various ways. But did anyone die as a result of reading my book?

“Second, how can you, the Communist Party, renege on your own word in this way? You formally denounced the Cultural Revolution by passing a resolution on the matter in the CCP Central Committee, but at the same time you prevent people from studying the Cultural Revolution.

“Third, you are unable to distinguish academic research from political activities aimed at overthrowing the government. I have not conducted any violent anti-government activities, nor have I instigated people to overthrow the government. What I have done is merely conduct research on the Cultural Revolution.... How could this possibly endanger state security?”

To them, the Cultural Revolution is an old wound. No one is allowed to touch this sore spot. They are afraid of revealing the ugly, cruel and shameful truth about the Cultural Revolution. Their denunciation of it is nothing but a sham.

HRIC: How did people inside China and people outside react differently to what happened to you?

SY: People inside China showed more sympathy for me. Those I had met with in China were all angry about this incident, and felt that the government’s behavior was outrageous. By contrast, some overseas Chinese suspected that I really had stolen state secrets. I think that my captors showed more kindness to me than those overseas Chinese.

HRIC: What upset you the most about this incident?

SY: What made me the most disappointed is that [the security personnel] held my wife in custody for three months, knowing that she had nothing to do with the case. This is not only inhumane, but also even more outrageous than the practices that occurred in the Cultural Revolution. During that time, people were urged, and even forced, to report on and criticize their spouses, but in fact such denunciations were relatively limited in scope. But while I was in custody, I found that many people were implicated purely because they were related to certain other people....

After being released, the thing I found most deplorable was that those who care deeply about the human rights situation in China were not Chinese, but American. Among the more than 150 scholars who signed the petition asking for my release, only three were Chinese. In fact, it is the Chinese scholars who should be the most interested in what happened to me, since they are more likely to encounter the same fate if they go back to China.

HRIC: Just days before releasing you, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs publicly accused you of stealing several hundred kilograms of materials, but then they let you go. What do you think is the real reason why you were released?

SY: International pressure played a big role. The Chinese government has long practiced what is sometimes called a “hostage policy”: They released me in order to improve their relationship with the United States, especially to assuage anger in the Congress.

Senator Arlen Specter (from Pennsylvania) together with ten other senators put forward a bill to confer citizenship on me so that diplomatic protection could be used to win my release, and talked about the impact my case might have on the issue of PNTR (Permanent Normal Trading Relations). Members considered “friendly” to China also felt that what had happened to me was unacceptable. One Democratic congressman is said to have mentioned several cases to President Jiang Zemin. Jiang kept silent while the congressman listed other prisoners’ names, and paused for a moment when my name was mentioned. Jiang said that he would ask for information on my case, which indicates the possibility that the top leadership might not have known about it to start with. This may be why there was a certain degree of flexibility shown regarding my case.

Another reason for my release is that the whole case was totally pointless. During my days in detention, I was told that people inside the system were also asking: is there anything wrong with researching the Cultural Revolution? Why bother to arrest him?

HRIC: What impact has this had on you?

SY: I used to bury myself in academic research. I was not very much concerned with human rights issues. Now, I cannot help but think about human rights. Just as the old saying goes, I was “forced to rebel” (bishang liangshan) by the Chinese government. As a result of this experience, I have become more and more involved in human rights activities. For example next month (June), I will attend a human rights-related conference.... Before, the administration of [Dickinson College where I work] did not encourage students to engage in human rights activities, but now the college has specifically allocated three offices for students to use for human rights advocacy. I feel that human rights are not alien to me any more, but rather my own business.

HRIC: If you have the chance, will you go to China again to do research on the Cultural Revolution?

SY: Of course! It is they who made a mistake and did unlawful things to me. I was released without being found guilty of anything. They should not have any sound reason to deny me a visa if I want to go home. If they do reject me, I will fight against such a decision.

HRIC: In your opinion, what should human rights organizations outside China be doing to improve the situation there?

SY: I believe that there are several things they should do: The first is to petition on behalf of victims for international pressure on the Chinese government. The second is to help victims and victims’ families. As far as I know, Human Rights in China has been doing those two things. The third thing you can do is to push the Chinese government to engage in dialogue with human rights groups. Such dialogue can also serve as a forum to criticize human rights abuse in China. I notice that China has so far refused to be in touch with any such human rights organization.

Human rights groups overseas should combine both hard and soft methods. In other words, they should seek to make full use of international pressure while at the same time engaging in dialogue with the Chinese government. It would be great if human rights groups could achieve a good balance between these two.

HRIC: What do you think of the bill granting PNTR to China, just passed by the US House of Representatives?

SY: I have followed this hot issue closely. First of all, I believe that the US Congress should consider human rights conditions in the course of debating or passing any bill related to China. Second, from the standpoint of the United States, ignoring China’s human rights situation and paying too much attention to trade interests would be short-sighted. A historical perspective reminds us that before the Second World War, the United States helped Nazi Germany to establish its steel industry. As a result, German tanks killed many US soldiers in the war.

Besides, I think that the Congress voted on the bill in a bit of a hurry. This meant that American people did not have enough time to digest the information, and those opposed to the bill were not able to express their opinions fully....

Of course, I do not believe that it would be wise to simply deny China PNTR, since normalizing the trade relationship will have a positive impact, especially on China’s economic development. For instance, since it will sustain China’s prosperity, trade is more likely to mean that the open-door policy continues. In the worst-case scenario, 80 percent of the profits from trade would go to the government. However, even then the remaining 20 percent will still benefit the people and the society. Another good reason for granting PNTR is that an open society is always better than a closed society.

The problem is that this time the US Congress did not fully utilize the PNTR bill as a means of leverage to push China to improve its human rights record. On the other hand, I do not think that the opposition totally lost this battle. At the very least, they highlighted their concerns and made their opinions widely heard, which is quite an accomplishment in itself.