Out of prison, a scholar turns to activism

Historian Song Yongyi says his first imprisonment during China's Cultural Revolution was easier to bear than his latest brush with authorities in the country of his birth. Recently released after 174 days in a Chinese prison, the US-based academic confides that his 3-1/2 years of imprisonment in the early 1970s - for organizing a book club - tested him with solitary confinement and physical torture.

But this time, he says, the mental anguish was almost overwhelming. His wife was also imprisoned, for 101 days. "They told me her health was not good, that she was suffering," he says, and offered to release her in exchange for a confession. "As a husband, as a man, this feels so bad."

Mr. Song's recent arrest stemmed from his research into the Cultural Revolution, specifically the decade from 1966 to 1976, during which millions of Chinese were killed, imprisoned, or otherwise persecuted. It remains an uncomfortable topic for the Chinese government. Song, who expects to gain US citizenship this month, has made several trips to China to collect materials documenting the period.

On Aug. 7 last year, after dining with four professors from Beijing University, Song was arrested by members of the Beijing Security Bureau in the lobby of his hotel. What seemed most outrageous about his detention, Song says, was that the documents they accused him of "stealing" were speeches and pamphlets widely circulated by the government during the Cultural Revolution, all of which can be easily purchased in Chinese bookstores and markets.

He repeatedly told his guards - most of whom were quite young - "If you're going to arrest me, you'd better go home and arrest your mothers and fathers because they have seen these papers, too."

It was his historical perspective, he says, that helped keep him from crumbling under the pressure during the time he and his wife were imprisoned. He knew such tactics were what Mao Tse-tung had used with prisoners. "They are not very creative today - they still use Mao's methods," Song says.

Finally, late last month, Song was released. After being feted at a banquet and told that the whole thing was a "misunderstanding," he was allowed to return to the United States. He spent part of last week in New York, meeting with the press and recounting his captivity.

But what he's really looking forward to is going home to Carlisle, Penn., and returning to his life as a librarian and scholar at Dickinson College. "I like to sit in my office," he explains. "I like my studies."

However, he adds, his quiet existence will never be quite the same again. From now on, he pledges he will devote new time and energy to activism on behalf of human rights and academic freedom.

One of his first efforts will be directed toward the release of Hua Di, a Stanford University researcher still serving a 16-year term in Beijing, accused - as was Song - of stealing state secrets.

If there is no challenge to the Chinese government's claim that public documents constitute state secrets, all scholars could be persecuted, Song says. "If my research project is dangerous, so is any academic research.... We should force the Chinese government to recognize an international standard [as to what constitutes] state secrets."

Some Western observers say the case against Song was so weak that his arrest may have been a blunder by lower-level officials hoping to appear heroic. Others see it as indicative of an increasing intolerance of individual freedoms, as seen in the crackdown on members of the religious group Falun Gong.

But Song says even his prison guards widely recognized his innocence and were open about expressing admiration for and even envy of his life in the US. An energetic and irrepressibly good-natured man, Song laughs as he recalls how they peppered him with questions about his salary, his car, and Western mores.

The motives for Song's release - the first time a prisoner has been set free by the Chinese government after being brought up on such charges - are also the subject of a wide range of opinions. Some see the move as proof of progress on human rights in the country. Others, however, say the decision was a calculated economic choice as China lobbied to become a member of the World Trade Organization. Song says his captors joked with him that he was "our pawn in exchange for the WTO."

Song attributes his release partly to Dickinson College because of its efforts to keep his case in the public eye. His case, he says, is proof "of what a small liberal-arts college can do."

Jerome Cohen, Song's New York-based lawyer and an expert in Chinese law, says he expects Western attorneys to learn a great deal from Song's experience. Because Song was able to study books on Chinese law in an effort to help defend his case, he now has expertise rivaled by few outside China, Mr. Cohen says. By contrast, during Song's imprisonment decades ago, he was only allowed to read texts by Mao, Marx, and Lenin.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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