On Leaving a Chinese Prison

Jiang Qisheng, a former student of philosophy and a human rights activist, was arrested in 1999 for commemorating the victims of the 1989 Tiananmen massacre. After four years in prison, he was recently released. He wrote the following statement upon accepting the Spirit of Freedom Award of the Independent Federation of Chinese Students and Scholars. It was read aloud in English by a friend in front of the Chinese embassy in Washington on June 1, 2003.

Perry Link

On May 17, 2003, as I left prison after serving a term that had ushered me out of an old century and into a new one, the first response of the police, those guardians of latter-day imperial authority, was to point me in the direction of their precinct station. They wanted to clarify for me the remaining item in my punishment, which was called “deprivation of political rights for one year” and which would now take effect, “according to law.”

Frederic J. Brown/AFP/Getty Images
Dissident Jiang Qisheng, pictured in Beijing in 2003. Jiang was released from the capital’s No. 2 Prison on May 17 after serving a four-year sentence.

Their attitude and actions form a sharp contrast with what I feel from you here, on this side of the Pacific Ocean (and from many friends back in China, for that matter), all of whom are showing me sincere concern and conveying to me only your best wishes. You are presenting me—a Chinese citizen who, because he loves freedom and dared to practice it, temporarily lost it—with your Spirit of Freedom Award. I am deeply honored.

All human beings cherish the freedom to speak honestly, and no person feels fully human when this freedom is denied. This rule holds for all nations, all ethnic groups, and all times and places. No one can truthfully say that Chinese people are any different—that they somehow don’t want to tell the truth, or want only to tell a part of it. Right now, I dare say, my fellow Chinese are at work telling the truth—in Yuyuan Park in Beijing, at the foot of Mount Yu in my hometown of Changshu, and in countless of the other nooks in China where ordinary people have determined that they can speak their minds without incurring disaster. What I did, what landed me in prison, was really quite simple—I just said in public what my fellow citizens were saying in all those other nooks. Being an intellectual, I may have tried to spruce the message up a bit, and to put things a little more directly, tightly, and accurately. But that’s all.

Small though my contribution was, I quite understood its dangers. I knew the Chinese rulers were not likely to overlook it. Shortly past 10 PM on May 18, 1999, I decided to state my views once again, this time in a telephone interview with Radio Free Asia.

What I did, what landed me in prison, was really quite simple—I just said in public what my fellow citizens were saying in all those other nooks.
In the interview I said that if I am imprisoned for telling the truth, then so be it. An hour and a half later a swarm of police arrived to take me away, and thus began my unforgettable 1,460 days and nights encircled by high walls and electric fences.

Yet the price I have had to pay, and the suffering I have had to endure, are small compared to what has been paid and endured by others—the victims of the June Fourth massacre and their families, the June Fourth convicts (so-called “rioters”) who are still inside the No. 2 Beijing prison, and all the groups of disadvantaged people who continue to live in the pain and stultification of systemic injustice. Compared to them, I have received rather too much attention. If my own case has any special significance it is only that it forces people to face a highly embarrassing fact—the fact that even now, in the dawn of the twenty-first century, a Chinese citizen can be imprisoned for what he says. A person who merely exercises the normal human proclivity to say what he thinks comes to be viewed as a prize-winning hero. This is odd, my friends. Will it not be wonderful when, some day, every Chinese person will be able to say what is on his or her mind—without either prison or prizes, heroism or villainy, even coming into it?

My thanks again to you all.

(translated from the Chinese by Perry Link)