Thursday, June 30, 2011

China’s Political Prisoners: True Confessions?

by Jonathan Mirsky

New York Review of Books

June 30, 2011

The Chinese artist Ai Weiwei’s ankle-deep heap of porcelain sunflower seeds bewitched recent visitors to London’s Tate Modern. But in early April Ai’s strong criticisms of the regime led to his disappearance somewhere in Beijing. On June 22, eighty-one days later, he reappeared at home. Not freed: reappeared, which can mean something closer to house arrest. A lifeguard at my local pool in London announced to me that Ai had been freed, and I fear that is what the “Sinologists”—as the China specialists in the Foreign Office like to be called—may have told Prime Minister David Cameron before his meeting on June 27 with Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao in London. They may also have mentioned that, according to the government’s official press agency, Ai “confessed his crimes”—though it should be noted no formal charge was ever brought against him.

“Admitting guilt” (renzui) is a well-established ritual, in which the alleged criminal is forced to sign a written statement about his supposed crimes. As the China correspondent for The Observer in the 1980s and 90s, I, too , was forced to “confess” on two occasions when I ran into trouble with the authorities, once in Lhasa, once in Beijing.

Perhaps Ai’s “freeing” and “confession” made it possible for Mr. Cameron to avoid saying anything unpleasant to his Chinese visitor. Another dissident, Hu Jia, was also released just before the Cameron-Wen press conference. Unnamed diplomats claimed that Hu’s release, like Ai’s, was a gesture of goodwill to Britain, though in fact Hu was let out on the final day of his sentence. In my experience, the British government’s “Sinologists” advise that Beijing dislikes public disagreement and prefers differences to be expressed genteelly, behind the screen. My first experience of this was in 1991 in Beijing when Prime Minister John Major assured me he had pressed Premier Li Peng hard about political prisoners. But I soon found out from another official who had been present that nothing of the sort had occurred. Not for China that thunderclap “inappropriate” proclaimed by Foreign Secretaries when a misbehaving country’s relationship with Britain is not as important, as with Syria and Bahrain, and of course, Libya.