On the drive to Kangding, I was sandwiched between two police officers on the back seat. To my right was a female Tibetan who had more than a few patriotic Chinese slogans to share. To my left was the Chinese officer who had cautioned me in my room, then later arrested me. He began chatting. He said he wanted to improve his English and this long drive would be a good opportunity for him to practice with me, if that was okay. The guy who had threatened and arrested me now wanted to learn English from me! What the fuck? But I reasoned I should get on his good side, so I let him ask me those simple but poignant questions so common to English beginners - what I believed in, what my life goals were, if I liked China...
This lasted for hours. My answers became shorter and shorter and eventually he dozed off on my shoulder, along with the Tibetan officer. I watched the car's digital clock turn midnight. August 1st 2008 - it was exactly a year since the bridge had collapsed. And now I was in a police car, red-and-blue siren flashing in the dark, on my way to being interrogated, with the heads of two sleeping police officers on my shoulders. I felt like Alice falling down the rabbit hole.
I didn't sleep at all. I thought about life in prison - the shit piled up in the toilets, the self-tightening cuffs common in Chinese prisons, the Tibetan nuns who described having electric cattle prods shoved into their vaginas. I thought about China's reform-through-labor schemes for political offenders, the prison torture techniques, the bhod gyalo (Free Tibet!) tattoo on my neck. Would they burn it off or carve it off?
At one point, I debated what sentence I would have to receive for me to want to kill myself. 15 years? If they gave me 15 years, I would be 39 when released. But then I thought about Palden Gyatso, the Tibetan monk who spent 33 years in prison. He didn't give up. I'd heard countless testimonies from political prisoners and couldn't believe I was to share their fate.
Mandela and Gandhi both served long terms. Maybe prison strengthens the activist soul. Maybe only after you've tasted the bitterness of injustice can you dedicate your life 110 per cent to fighting it. I rethought suicide. I'd always believed whatever didn't kill me would make me stronger, and there was no better time than now to embrace this creed. In 15 years, I could master Chinese and Tibetan. But 15 years was unlikely, since Chinese dissidents are usually sentenced from five to ten years. Thoughts and wonderings looped on like this in my mind, until we reached Kangding the next morning.
They took me to a fourth-floor hotel room, with a view of the Kangding valley. The police chief, who they called Boss, performed the interrogation. He sat across from me by the window. Two more officers sat behind him, with two more on the bed, filming and taking notes. No one was in a uniform. The boss spoke in a friendly tone. It didn't feel like an interrogation. He asked me question after question, looking for discrepancies in my answers.
If I told the truth, I would be sentencing myself to prison and endangering others. So, on the drive, I had resolved to swallow my fear and transform into someone else - to adopt an alias. I became Wen, an artsy, tree-hugging, New-Age hippie - a politically inept traveller and devout Buddhist, exploring the world in search of myself. I exaggerated the language barrier. When I needed time to think, I asked the boss to clarify the meaning of certain Chinese words. I used English words in my answers, to force him to stop and look them up.
This bought me time to concoct more credible lies. I've always been terrible at lying, and I'm often clumsy with words when put on the spot, but this day was an exception. I'm not proud of the lies I told but I don't completely regret them either. I gave brilliant answers and surprised myself with my performance.
When the boss asked me if I'd ever been to Dharamsala, I excitedly replied yes! - that I'd taken the Tushita Introduction to Buddhism course, which had opened many doors to Buddhism and helped quench my spiritual thirst. I described my spiritual connection with the Indian Himalayas and my personal growth there. I said I'd taken a ten-day Vipassana mediation course, and detailed the feelings and emotions I'd experienced. I used experiences gleaned from people I'd met who had attended these courses.
I knew atheism is mandatory for all Chinese officials, since Communism is supposed to be their religion. But I asked the boss about his faith - how would he develop spiritually if he meditated for 10 days? This made him laugh.
The interrogation turned into a conversation. To all the boss' questions about Dharamsala, I responded with spiritual hippie talk. When he asked my opinion on Tibetans seeking independence, I played ignorant and asked him to explain the situation and say what he thought. He spoke passionately about how it was stupid for Tibetans to want independence. I said it wasn't nice to call people stupid, that we should all have more compassion, but that I really should learn more about the issue. Then I returned to explaining my passion for Tibetan Buddhism.
When asked about my photos of the military base, I expounded theories of composition and aesthetic motivation. I went on about my love of photography, the magic of freezing time, and what-not. When asked about my e-mail account, I said a few months back I'd had a horribly messy and painful break-up with my boyfriend, so I'd cancelled my e-mail account to make a clean break. I feigned the pain of a broken heart and said how hard it was to even stay friends, which wasn't too far from the truth and made my performance more credible.
After about two hours of questioning, the boss seemed satisfied. I'd managed to convince him I was an ignorant, harmless girl. He said they just needed a quick look through my things, that they'd confiscate my memory card, and would send me back to my hotel in Chengdu. Hope grew. Now the only evidence left was on the external hard drive. But if they opened it, they'd know I was lying all along.
The boss told me to wait in the hotel room whilst they looked through the hard drive. My anxiety had dissipated, as my fate seemed sealed and there was absolutely nothing I could do now. I could only think of trying the human approach - of getting the officers to know me, to see I wasn't a bad person and didn't deserve to be locked up because I had different political opinions to them. I wanted them to feel guilty for imprisoning me. So we chatted, ate breakfast and watched TV.
The Tibetan officer told me she envied me for all the countries I had visited. She said that, by the time she was 24, she was married with a child and working full-time for the Public Security Bureau. She said she wanted to see the world, but it seemed impossible. She asked about my home in America. I told her Minnesota has 10,000 lakes and the biggest shopping mall in the world. She played Britney Spears on her pink cell phone and told me to guess the tune. It was ‘Oops, I Did It Again'. I began to see why she clung to the romanticism of Communist ideology. She decided to take a nap and got into bed.
I sat on the other bed and talked to the officer who had threatened then arrested me - the one who wanted to practice his English. An Olympics programme was on TV, the volume low. The officer was a big sports fan and was excited about the Olympics, especially the basketball and track. He said how proud he was of China, as if it was his own son. He did have a real son, but didn't mention him until I asked. We talked and laughed. He was a womaniser and grinned when he said, if it were up to him, he would have multiple wives. He asked if people in America were allowed to do that. I talked about the divorce rate and the ins and outs of dating in the US.
I chatted with these two officers for more than four hours, until others arrived and said it was time to go. I asked if they were taking me back to Chengdu and they said it wasn't up to them, but that it would be a fun road trip. They asked for my e-mail address and I reminded them I cancelled my account. I looked at them with sad puppy eyes as I was escorted into a police car where, again, I sat in the middle of the back seat, with four officers. I was sure they had made the arrangements for my imprisonment. I wondered how long it would be until my trial, knowing full well that fair trials in China are virtually non-existent for political offenders.
There seemed to be confusion about what to do with me. The car drove in one direction, stopped and turned back to the hotel. The officers pretended not to hear when I asked where they were taking me. I was escorted into another car at the hotel and we drove in the opposite direction. They finally said they were taking me to Chengdu, but I didn't quite believe them. I couldn't tell if they were lying or annoyed. I tried asking different questions, to figure out if they were really going to release me in Chengdu, but my efforts were futile. They wouldn't give me back my passports or cell phone. When I asked why not, the officer in the front said he didn't have them - that an officer in another car did. But I heard the low-battery tone of my phone beep in his pocket, and I felt uneasy.
I knew there was a prison for political offenders in Chengdu and was sure that was where we were headed. When we stopped at a restaurant for lunch, the officers seemed in a better mood. They began joking with me, as the last group had, and told me to eat up. A Tibetan officer referred to me as Zema - the Tibetan term for beautiful - but also commented I would be more attractive if my complexion wasn't so dark.
Another officer asked me if it was too soon to start teaching English to his two-year-old son. I recommended he obtain English-language children's programmes like Sesame Street and Blue's Clues, and said it was best to start young. I was beginning to feel more at ease and clung to the tiny hope that they wouldn't be this friendly if they were going to put me away...would they?
It was a five-hour drive to Chengdu. As we approached the city, just before 6pm on August 1st, the officer in the front asked what street my hotel was on. I couldn't believe my ears and immediately perked up. He's not taking me to prison if he's asking where my hotel is! I told him I needed to check my guidebook, and was stunned they were actually going to release me.
I told them about what happened last August 1st and they told me to not worry - that I was safe because I was with the police this year. A few minutes later, the officer asked if I would mind writing a letter confessing my crime, just for their records. This sounded suspicious, since they had already written pages and pages along with the recorded files for my case. He said they wanted a confession written by me, that it wouldn't take long, and then I could take a taxi to my hotel. Did I have the option to refuse?
We arrived at a fancy hotel and the officers took two double rooms on the second floor. I wrote about a page and a half, apologising for taking photos of the military base and the armed police, explaining that I wasn't aware I was in illegal possession of state secrets. I said I would learn to abide by the law of the country in the future. After I handed in the letter, they invited me to dine with them. I was anxious to go but they joked that, after spending a whole day together, didn't I even want to have a nice dinner to round it off? One of the officers said I could leave if I wanted and come back later, because there were still a few things they needed to talk to me about. Despondent and unsure of what was really going on, I agreed to the dinner. It was my fourth meal in a nice restaurant with the police, under custody. Two of the officers drank four bottles of beer each. They were having a great time, eating and laughing, holding up their glasses and saying tashi delek. I wondered if and when I'd be released - when the charade would end.
The officer sitting beside me said after dinner we'd go up to the hotel room and delete the pictures I wasn't supposed to have taken - the ones that contained ‘state secrets'. I was surprised and impressed by his consideration, because the boss in Kangding had said my memory card would be confiscated. Then he mentioned the external hard drive for the first time. He said they'd found some things they needed to delete but, since it was about 50GB worth of data, they'd take it to a shop and have it deleted overnight. I could come back the next morning to pick it up.
I was in a state of disbelief. They'd found out everything about my political involvement in Dharamsala, but they didn't question me and now they were letting me go. After they'd deleted the photos, and taken photos of themselves deleting the photos, they handed back my passports and cell phone and waved me goodbye. I picked up my empty hard drive the next morning and was free.
I still couldn't believe it. The most logical explanation was that it was too sensitive a time to detain me - that it would look bad for the Chinese government to imprison a Taiwanese-American activist during the run up to the Beijing games. Was it the Olympics that saved me?
Now, back in Dharamsala, something haunts me - something that many Tibetans have to live with. When I was questioned in Kangding, I lied and didn't stand up for what I believed in. I knew what the authorities wanted to hear and that was what I told them, because I knew the consequences if I told the truth.
People may say that China has a bright future, but what is bright about the future of a country of 1.3 billion people - one sixth of the world's population - where no individual can express a difference of opinion with the state? How could the IOC award its prestigious games to a country where you can't say what you think, read what you want or worship who you choose?
Having been born with freedom, I never fully appreciated it until it was taken from me. Yes, I am able to write these words today, but a sixth of the world has no freedom to express what's in their hearts without fear of persecution if it strays from the Chinese government's ideology. China uses fear to silence its people. But there will come a time when fear turns to defiance. It was Mao himself who said it only takes a spark to start a prairie fire. It's just a matter of who's going to light to match.