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Writing for the Freedom of Others

July 3, 2012

Acceptance Speech, Kapuściński Award for Literary Reportage 2012

Warsaw, Poland, May 11, 2012

Liao Yiwu, 2010. Photo Credit: Elke Wetzig (Elya), Standing here in this moment and receiving this high praise from the hands of the respected Madam Kapuscinski, I feel honored, but ill at ease.I worry because one of the men I write about in my book, a poet named Li Bifeng (李必丰), is in prison in China.

The Tiananmen massacre occurred 23 years ago. More than 200,000 troops surrounded the city of Beijing and suppressed tens of millions of ordinary Chinese people who had taken to the streets. Nearly 3,000 protesters were shot dead. Tens of thousands of political prisoners were thrown into jail. Li Bifeng and I were among them.

We were in the same prison. Similarly near-sighted, we both looked up with hopes to the star-lit sky sliced by the prison’s bars. Li Bifeng had a wonderful imagination and could write long poems of over a thousand lines, but I could not. After many years, we were each released from prison and went our separate ways. The police often searched my home or detained me for short periods of time, but I was never convicted again. “You’re too lucky!” Li Bifeng would exclaim to me time and again. Li, however, was too unlucky. The first time in jail, he served five years; the second, seven. As for the third—and that was just two months after I left China—Li was arrested for "economic crimes." The real reason was that they suspected him of financially helping me to escape.

Li is facing trial, and it is possible that he will get a harsh sentence of more than ten years. This would be more absurd than what happens in Kafka’s The Trial,[1] though it fits well with many of the details in Kapuściński’s works, e.g. The Emperor, about the Ethiopian dictator Haile Selassie, and Imperium, on the former Soviet Union.

Sixteen times the Chinese government forbade me to leave the country. But finally, I left by crossing the border by myself. Western readers regard this as “legendary.” Yet the unknown Li Bifeng has repeatedly attempted to sneak across the border and was caught again and again—something so “legendary” that it becomes truly appalling.

The first time was in 1989 after the Tiananmen massacre. From under a blanket arrest warrant, he managed to get through numerous heavily armed checkpoints from Sichuan to Yunnan, bypass the Yunnan border defense guard by boring into the primitive forest, and made his way to Myanmar. He thought that he was free of the Communist Party of China, but unfortunately fell into the hands of the Communist Party of Myanmar. He was escorted back to the border by the guerrillas, a long rope binding his hands together. Like a slave to be sold on the market, he was dragged behind a tractor by the rope. He ran and ran to keep up, falling and getting back up until his face was black and blue. Then he was treated like a football by the Chinese border guards, who kicked him into a stupor and then revived him with cold water. He was nearly tortured to death but did not die.

There was another time when he got in touch with an international human rights organization and planned to escape to Hong Kong. He walked as per their agreement along the barbed-wire fence on Chung Ying Street, in Shenzhen, which separated the British and Hong Kong territories, holding a magazine as a sign. No one came to meet him. He was then arrested in a dramatic scene. The armed border guard cried out, “Don’t move!” and ran straight at him. A bright idea hit him. Li threw his bag, which held his trial verdict and a few draft poems and novels, over the fence to the Hong Kong side of the street. “At that time Hong Kong had not been returned to China, and was still nominally a British colony,” he later said. “I could not leave the country, but at least my writings went abroad.” But while the border guards handcuffed him, they opened the barbed wire fence, went to the British side, and retrieved the “evidence” that had he just “left the country.”

Like this, the authorities seized millions of characters of Li Bifeng’s writings as evidence, yet they did not convict him for his writings. How many political prisoners in China have been sentenced for economic crimes? The artist Ai Weiwei has been accused of “tax evasion,” but the accusation that Li Bifeng financed my escape is even more ridiculous than that. Besides, I've never received a fen from this fellow inmate of mine.

I am free, but my friend is sitting in jail. In this situation, can I truly be free? As the foreign correspondent for communist Poland, Kapuściński wrote for the people outside of his country throughout his life. Because his pen offended the foreign dictators, he was sentenced to death in absentia four times. He fought for the freedom of others and to preserve the truth in the world. He once said: the eyes and the mind of a writer are a camera that is used for recording everything.

This is the magnificence of literary reportage. Pure literature, fiction, is written perhaps for oneself or to compensate for certain lack in human nature. Literary reportage, however, is done in order to record the boundless flow of people or the torrents of blood and tears. It documents the tears of a single ant or 100 million ants. That is the reason that I wrote Corpse Walker, never stopping for nearly 20 years to narrate more than 300 stories from the lower rungs of Chinese society. For this, I received the honor and praise of a far-off country, Poland, which has given birth to Chopin, John Paul II, Lech Walesa, Czeslaw Milosz, and Ryszard Kapuściński.

I hope that I have not digressed. I talk about Li Bifeng because he is also one of the sources for my literary reportage. I am grateful for the generosity of the Warsaw government and city council. I thank you for your high praise to a writer of the lower rungs of Chinese society. At the same time, I would also like to thank the award committee, who chose me to be the winner out of the five finalists on the stage.

To end this acceptance speech, I would like to read a poem by Li Bifeng titled “In this Country, We Can Only Hibernate.” The Polish translation is by a friend of mine, Weronika Byrdy.

In This Country, We Can Only Hibernate

Winter arrives too early.
Our trees begin to wither.
We no longer have the nutrients to offer them;
Our dark hair slowly freezes to white
In the snows of passing time.
Our skin is like chapped fields.
Winter is here,
We all love to hibernate.
Our hearts are tired
Our blood is tired,
We nestle beneath the snow to hibernate.


Liao Yiwu is a poet, writer, and musician from Chengdu, Sichuan Province. After writing and publicly reciting the epic poem “Massacre” before dawn on June 4, 1989, and later organizing the production of the film “An Hun,” Liao was arrested in 1990 and imprisoned for four years. He received the Human Rights Watch Hellman-Hammett Grant in 1995 and 2003, and the Freedom to Write Award from the Independent Chinese PEN Center in 2007. Liao is also the author of God is Red: The Secret Story of How Christianity Survived and Flourished in Communist China and The Corpse Walker: Real Life Stories: China from the Bottom Up. For many years, the Chinese authorities denied Liao permission to attend literary festivals abroad multiple times. In July 2011, Liao left China, without asking for permission. He lives in Berlin.

Translator’s Note

[1] In The Trial, a bank employee is arrested, tried, and sentenced by unnamed authorities on charges that he—and the reader—never learns.

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