Two Chinese Dissidents Freed After Years in Prison
BEIJING — The day after he was released from Beijing No. 2 Prison, Yang Zili sat down at a McDonald’s and, over a cup of Sprite, tried to make sense of his life.
After eight years in prison on charges that an informal political discussion group he organized in 2000 was seeking to overthrow the Communist Party, the intellectual seemed dazed by his new freedom, his youthful exuberance sapped by years of detention, the occasional smile quickly subsumed by melancholy.
“I still don’t understand why we were punished so severely,” he said. “We never broke any laws. I have no regrets.” As China grapples with its still-developing mesh of economic openness and strict political control, those like Mr. Yang deemed to have crossed the blurry line between free speech and subversion can end up in prison, their harsh sentences meted out as warnings to others. When they finally are released, the next step is not always apparent.
An Internet entrepreneur with a master’s in mechanics, Mr. Yang, 37, said he was not sure how he would earn a living. For now, he is staying with a friend.
His wife, who once made regular visits to see him in prison, stopped coming in recent years and has since moved to the United States. “I’m not even sure where she is,” he said quietly.
Simpler needs were addressed. On Friday, he made his first purchases: a pair of shiny black loafers and a tan windbreaker.
Mr. Yang gained his freedom the same day as his friend, Zhang Honghai, 36, a freelance writer who was also a member of the New Youth Society, a study group that sought to tackle topics like government corruption, democracy and the unrelenting poverty of rural China. The group rarely drew more than four or five participants and met sporadically during the course of a few months before its members were detained.
Two other defendants, Xu Wei and Jin Haike, are scheduled to be released next year.
The defendants, who came to be known as the Four Gentlemen of Beijing, were convicted during a trial that relied on their Internet postings advocating political liberalization and the written testimony of three friends who later recanted those accounts.
One of those friends, Li Yizhou, fled to Thailand and tried to help the defendants by submitting letters to the court saying his reports to security officials were exaggerated or fabricated.
The letters were rejected.
Human rights organizations have long sought the release of the men, citing the severity of their sentences and pointing out that none of those convicted were veteran dissidents. They say the defendants, all in their 20s and graduates of the country’s most prestigious universities, were simply earnest young men eager to debate the problems that face a rapidly modernizing China.
“The authorities destroyed the lives of young people who were simply exercising freedoms that are supposedly protected by Chinese law,” said Sharon Hom, executive director of Human Rights in China, a group based in New York. For Mr. Yang and Mr. Zhang, those freedoms are now proscribed by the terms of their release. For two years, they have no right to free speech, assembly or association, and are forbidden to discuss politics.
Even Mr. Yang’s carefully chosen words with a reporter at McDonald’s could put him at risk.
Although prison dulled what friends describe as an infectious optimism and an ardor for verbal polemics, it has not dimmed his admiration for democracy, Mr. Yang said.
He brightened slightly when recalling his final words before the sentence was read. “Imprisonment is not my shame,” he announced to the court. “It’s my honor.”
He acknowledges that his defiance probably contributed to the relatively harsh treatment he endured in prison. He said he had been kept in a cell with rapists, murderers and drug dealers, and could receive visitors only once a month.
Every phone call — and what he planned to talk about — had to be approved in advance.
The son of poor farmers who started his own software company, Mr. Yang said that books and magazines had sustained him — the French philosopher Montesquieu and Vaclav Havel, the Czech the playwright and dissident who was elected president, were favorites — along with the reams of poetry and essays he wrote. He also taught other inmates how to use computers, although he was not allowed to use the Internet.
Overall, Mr. Yang said that his treatment was far better than that of his friends, who have reportedly been ailing. According to Human Rights in China, Mr. Xu became mentally ill after being subjected to torture and hard labor, and Mr. Jin has been suffering from an untreated intestinal ailment.Before heading back out to the street on Friday, Mr. Yang said he was not bitter about what happened to him, just sad that the group he helped start had indirectly destroyed the lives of so many friends. “I couldn’t have imagined,” he said, “that spreading ideas such as freedom and democracy would lead to something so horrible.”