Poet Liu Hongbin fled China after taking part in the Tiananmen Square protests. Here, he describes his experience of returning to China as a persona non grata in 1997
In the dead of winter 1997, I landed back in Beijing. As I was passing through immigration control, an officer asked: “Do you have a Chinese name?” I wrote down a name with the same pronunciation but using different characters. He waved me through.
According to police regulations, anyone with a foreign passport has to report his place of abode within 24 hours. As soon as I arrived at my mother’s home, I called to register with the police. Early the next morning, six policemen broke into my mother’s home and greeted me with the words: “You are not welcome in this country. Your counter-revolutionary words overseas have made you persona non grata. You are forbidden to meet politically sensitive people, to move or speak freely.” Then they took away my passport.
I was put under house arrest, but I managed to leave the house. I met the sister of a dissident writer in prison, Sun Weibang. He had been adopted by International PEN as an honorary member, at my suggestion. I said I was willing to take any of his writings out of the country.
One day, the police came banging at the door at my sister’s house. Hearing this, I telephoned the British consul in Beijing and told him what was going on. The consul told me to open the door. The police showed me a warrant and asked me to sign it. I made a fingerprint and put down the same name I used when entering the country, but the police ordered me: “Put down your right name.” The telephone rang: it was the consul again. I told him they were going to take me to police headquarters.
As I was walking down the staircase of my sister’s home, flanked by police, my sister returned from work. As I was shown into the car, my sister told me: “I will be with you very soon,” and she hailed a taxi. The police car drove away at full speed with its siren on, pushing aside pedestrians and vehicles. The police sitting in front were abusive, shouting at the crowds. I was calm and unafraid. My eyes were moist.
I wanted to ask one of the police, “Do you believe in God?” The words didn’t come out. I thought it might be too provocative.
At police headquarters, they interrogated me. They asked me what organisation I belonged to. I said International PEN. They drew up a statement and asked me to sign it. I refused. Then my sister arrived, and the police questioned her separately. Two plain-clothes policemen passed by and I recognised them. I even remembered their names; I said hello, as if speaking to old acquaintances. They were the policemen who had harassed me before I left China in 1989.
After we were released, I asked my sister: “Were you afraid?” She replied: “No. I’m proud of having a brother like you.”
A few days later, my passport was returned to me. I had told them to give it back or I would apply for a new one at the British Embassy in Beijing. I made my way to Jinan and spent a night of freedom there. A friend’s wife had used her name to book a room in a hostel. The next day, I left for Nanjing. As soon as I called my sister to tell her I was safe, they tracked my whereabouts, and the hotel where I was staying was swarming with police.
From Nanjing, I headed for Shanghai to meet a friend who had helped me out when I was ill. She booked me into a hotel and said she would return the next morning. I took a walk alone in the night rain and tasted the excitement of freedom.
The next morning when we went out, we were all followed in the subway and to the restaurant. As we came out of a bookstore, I sensed them just a few feet away. I asked the man and woman to show their ID or I would report them to the police. They fobbed me off by saying they had none and the girl said she was waiting for a job. I went into a Baptist church for a while. The people shied away from us. I felt calm but realised we were not welcome there. When I came out, the two police agents continued to follow us, I turned around and started taking photographs of them. Then I caught sight of a dozen police with walkie-talkies. They surrounded me, coming out of taxis and leaping off motorbikes. I dialled the British Embassy number on my cell phone, but I was arrested in broad daylight and taken to a local station.
After several hours, the head of the police came to me with my Chinese ID card in one hand and my passport in the other. He told me: “You have to choose between the two.” And I now knew what that meant: the final hour had come. I said, “I want my British passport,” but I felt like saying, “I want freedom.”
The chief declared: “You have been performing activities incompatible with your tourist status. You must leave the country immediately.”
The next day, I was taken to the airport and two policemen escorted me onto the plane. Before I boarded, I asked one of them: “Can I give you something?” They exchanged glances and agreed. Presenting him with my collection of poems, I said: “I will return through my poetry.” I was deported to Hong Kong.
As soon as I got back to London, there was a death threat waiting for me on my answer machine. The perpetrator, of Chinese origin, was arrested. I didn’t press charges.
A longer version of this article appears in the forthcoming issue of Index on Censorship magazine