Plough: You’ve been described as “one of China’s most prominent essayists and critics” (New York Review of Books). Yet your books are now blacklisted in China, and you’ve been living in the United States since 2012. What made you seek political asylum abroad?
Yu Jie: On October 8, 2010, it was announced that Liu Xiaobo, the Chinese dissident writer, had been chosen to receive the Nobel Peace Prize. At the time, he was in prison serving an eleven-year sentence for inciting subversion (he remains a prisoner today). The authorities knew that Liu and I were good friends – we had known each other for twelve years and I was writing his biography. Immediately after the announcement, my wife Liu Min and I were placed under house arrest.
The ceremony to award the Nobel Peace Prize to Liu in absentia was on December 10. The day before this was the darkest of my life. Plainclothes agents of the secret police kidnapped me from my home, pulled a black hood over my head, and brought me to a detention room. For six hours they tortured me almost to death. They told me: “If our supervisor gives the order, we will dig a hole and bury you alive.” I was stripped of all my clothes and beaten badly as they took pictures. Then they forced my fingers backward one by one, saying that they would break the fingers I had used to write against the Communist Party. Eventually I lost consciousness.
The first hospital they brought me to refused to treat me. So they brought me to a more advanced hospital, where physicians told me that if the torture had continued another half hour I would not have survived.
Do you remember what you were thinking during the interrogation?
Before I lost consciousness I prayed to God in my heart. I clearly sensed his presence and felt the assurance: without the permission of God, not one hair of my head will fall. These words came to me as well: “Do not fear those who can kill the body, because they cannot kill the soul.” Those two promises of Jesus were my prayer.
After my kidnapping, my wife was still under house arrest. All phone lines and the internet were cut off, and for five days she had no way of finding out where I was. She was under such stress that she lost half her hair. Fortunately, by divine providence, we had sent our two-year-old son for a visit to his grandparents shortly before, so he was spared this experience.
After my arrest and torture, they tried to bribe me – they promised that if I would stop criticizing the regime they would provide a platform for me to write popular literature, and I would get rich.
Even after my release, the harassment and periods of house arrest continued. I could not go to church or attend Bible study; I was cut off from my Christian brothers and sisters. I looked in my son’s eyes and asked myself what kind of father I could be to him if we remained in China in this impossible situation. And so in January 2012 we came to the United States.
You weren’t raised as a Christian. Were there influences in your childhood and youth that laid the groundwork for your conversion later?
I was born in the city of Chengdu in the province of Sichuan, a beautiful, mountainous region with a long history of resisting the imperial power in Beijing. So from the beginning of my life I drank in a dislike for centralized power.
My father is an engineer. His thinking and lifestyle were quite westernized, and even as a young boy he treated me as an equal. In a Confucian culture that emphasizes hierarchy, this was rare.
The moment of my political awakening came when I was sixteen and attending high school. I still remember hearing the news of the mass murder of students protesting on Beijing’s Tiananmen Square. That day, June 4, 1989, marked a turning point for me – I began to realize the true nature of the Communist regime. I would never believe their lies again.
Three years later, I arrived in Beijing myself, as a student at Peking University, China’s oldest and most selective institute of higher learning. I studied there for eight years, earning a master’s degree. But far more important to me than my formal coursework were my independent studies in the library. Thanks to a friendly librarian who bent the rules, I had access to restricted books published in Taiwan. I read accounts of the campaign of civil disobedience against Taiwan’s authoritarian government in the 1970s and 80s, and learned how a pro-democracy movement can be successful. What especially impressed me was the prominent role that Taiwan’s churches played in this movement.
But you were still just a secular observer.
That’s right. In 1998, while still a graduate student, I published my first book, Fire and Ice, a collection of satirical essays criticizing Chinese society. Looking back, it amazes me that the book ever made it past the censors. But that was the year Bill Clinton visited China – the first US president to do so since the Tiananmen Square massacre. The Chinese leadership wanted Western media to portray China as a free society. What better way than to allow publication of a book critical of the regime?
Though the authorities’ motives were cynical, my book benefited, and I gained one of my best friends: a copy reached Liu Xiaobo in prison. Two years later, he was released and we got to know each other. He introduced me to the Tiananmen Mothers, whose sons and daughters had died in Tiananmen Square. As a result, I became involved in the movement for human rights in China.
Our wish is to overcome the separation based on class and social status.
That year, 2000, I finished graduate school and Liu Min and I were married. We spent our first year together in the southeastern province of Guangdong, editing a pro-democracy textbook for schoolchildren – we wanted an alternative to the propaganda in government textbooks. One of our collaborators, a Christian, suggested including readings from the Bible, since it is a historically important text. His proposal was controversial, but my wife and I were intrigued. When we moved back to Beijing she began reading the Bible on the subway to and from work. Over time, what she read convinced her, and she became a Christian.
It took me two years to follow her. One reason was the high status that traditional Chinese culture gives to scholars. Despite the Communist Party’s official hostility to Confucianism, in reality we Chinese are still born and bred into a Confucian worldview. This has very positive aspects: we are educated to put the good of the whole nation – in fact, the whole world – above selfish goals. Yet Confucianism also strongly emphasizes self-cultivation: one strives to become a saint through one’s own moral effort. To move from this way of thinking to Christianity’s teaching of the total depravity of human nature – of course Calvinism is especially strong on this – was a huge shift for me.
Without the illumination of the Holy Spirit, I believe that people like me could never be humbled. As Chinese intellectuals, we feel we need to keep our dignity and face. Before my baptism, I remember telling my wife that I could never be baptized because the ceremony involved bowing to the minister.