Last week, dissident writer Liao Yiwu escaped from China and is now in Berlin. Liao had been denied an exit visa 17 times, been forcibly taken off planes and trains by authorities, and imprisoned for four years as a “counterrevolutionary,” during which time he saw 20 other inmates taken out to be executed and tried to commit suicide twice. Unnamed friends assisted Liao in slipping across the border to Vietnam, after which he traveled to Poland and then onto Germany. “I’m ecstatic, I’m finally free. I feel like I’m walking through a dream,” he said in a phone interview with the New York Times on Monday.
Writes Philip Gourevitch in the New Yorker on meeting Liao in Berlin:
Liao said he didn’t know if the Chinese authorities had realized yet that he’d left. “It has been a very difficult trip for me to get out of the country, but I would like to keep the details to myself until next year,” he said. “In 2012, the leadership will change in Beijing, and I’m looking forward to a new government with the hope that I may then go back to China.” He added, somewhat cryptically, “It was like magic that I was able to get out, and such wonderful magic that I even got an exit stamp in my passport.”
So he is not a refugee. “Never,” he said. In fact, he told me, “I’m excited about political developments in China, and looking forward to a Jasmine Revolution. I am quite sure that Hu Jintao may be a refugee some day, but not Liao Yiwu.”
Liao first aroused official disapproval in 1987, when he published poetry that was regarded as “too pessimistic and anti-establishment.” After the bloody Tiananmen crackdown im 1989, Liu and five friends recited poems on video critical of the violence against protesters; poetry by Allen Ginsburg and Dante’s “Inferno” inspired the piece, which Liao called “Massacre.” He was jailed soon after.
It was in prison that he met many of the people who inspired the book he’s most well-known for in the west, The Corpse Walker: Real Life Stories: China from the Bottom Up. The book was published in Taiwan in 2001 and banned soon after in China. Says the New York Times:
The book, a collection of interviews with people he encountered in prison and during wanderings in the southwest, tells the unadorned stories of 27 people, among them a public toilet attendant, a persecuted landlord, and the men, known as corpse walkers, whose job it is to transport the dead back to their hometowns for burial.
Another book, God is Red, Liao “sought out Christians in rural Sichuan and Yunnan provinces who had endured years of official persecution.” The Witness of the 4th of June, whose title is a clear reference to the Tiananmen massacred, is a memoir of his years in prison.
Liao — a friend of Nobel Peace Prize-winning writer Liu Xiaobo, who is serving an 11-year-sentence for subversion — was forbidden to travel to literary festivals in Germany, Australia and the United States after The Corpse Walker: Real Life Stories: China from the Bottom Up was published. Last year, he was forced to sign a vow to cease publishing outside of China. While authorities let him travel for the first time last fall to a literary festival in German, this past March, police visited him, after which he was forbidden to attend the PEN World Voices Festival in New York. Since February on, Chinese authorities have stepped up their crackdown on dissent in the wake of the pro-democracy protests in the Arab spring, with human rights activists, lawyers, writers and artists including Ai WeiWei detained and disappearing.
As a writer whose work is based on telling the stories of Chinese “on the margins of society,” Liao’s exile from his country is more than bittersweet. His family — his mother, his son, two siblings and a girlfriend — remain in southwestern Sichuan Province.
My parents recently returned from a trip there. They’ve visited few times before and one change they definitely noted was all the wealth and development: Those articles about the newly rich in China the New York Times regularly runs aren’t kidding. No more water buffalo in the village streets; lots of people driving cars rather than riding bicycles; bullet trains that made my husband, who’d just suffered through yet another breakdown on NJ Transit’s aging equipment, quite envious.
At one point my parents asked their tour guide about Tiananmen Square: The guide said words to the effect of “bad people” inciting students and not much more — not to anyone’s surprise.
Now that Liao Yiwu is out of Germany, let’s hope he can indeed write and speak more freely, and say what things are really like in China.
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Photo by Elke Wetzig (Elya) (Own work) [GFDL (www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC-BY-SA-3.0-2.5-2.0-1.0 (www.creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons