During the Olympics, Graffiti Research Lab founder James Powderly was detained in Beijing for, essentially, supporting the Tibetan people who have been brutally repressed by the Chinese government for decades. He told us that "as a graffiti writer all I can think to do is go sneak out at night and get busted." This week he was released early and sent back to the U.S. with others he was being held with, and he told us about why he did what he did, his experience in Chinese prison, and what landed him there.
We heard about a 'how-to' project you were working on... I'm making a construction set that's called How to Get Thrown into Chinese Prison. It's actually really easy to do if you're Tibetan and protest your repression or occupancy by the Chinese government, or if you're a Chinese national and you talk about democracy, if you're an old woman and you want to be a Christian...it's pretty simple. But if you're a white American it's actually pretty complicated, so I wanted to do a step-by-step showing exactly how you can almost guarantee yourself Chinese detention.
How long were you detained? I was apprehended and held in custody for six days, but was only officially in the detention center for five days. They released me for some reason after five days, which was half the time that I was sentenced.
I had no idea they had the authority to sentence a citizen from another country, I mean, you didn't even have a trial I assume. No, no I didn't have a trial and I wasn't charged with a crime. There is no judicial process, they simply pick you up and put you in detention and you pretty much just have to do whatever the hell they want. It's really amazing what absolute power means. They feel like they have absolute power in the U.S., and it's true if you're an Arab being suspected of terrorism, this country has absolute power and you have no rights. But for us white folks it's a really absurd concept that you can be detained indefinitely without ever being charged with a crime.
How did you feel about the U.S. Embassy's involvement. Did they act quickly enough? My friends and family members here, the Students for a Free Tibet, my local representative...I believe acted nearly immediately when they heard. I think the State Dept showed quite a bit of political savvy, and the White House, by waiting until the Olympics were officially closing to release a public statement. I think the Chinese thought at the time they acted with some politically savvy by releasing us during the closing ceremonies, but because of the kind of steam the story had generated it kind of backfired in a way, and it was perfectly timed so that every story that came out about the Olympics sort of showed that amongst the golden clouds there's a sort of gray mark. But I mean I honestly didn't have much more at the time than appreciation for what the State Dept had done because we were all fucking losing our minds and any reduction of the sentence was really significant, because after 10 days in Chinese detention I would have been a little ball rotted up in the corner.
At the time did you have any idea of any progress that was being made? No, we were completely isolated and our meeting with the U.S. consulate was done in the presence of about ten Chinese secret police officers including a bunch of Chinese police translators. So there was no private conversation we had with them, it was all under the watchful eye of the Chinese government. When we were asked how we were being treated we said "awesomely, the food is delicious, we have water" and things like this--so they weren't able to tell us as much about what was going on.
They were only able to say there was media attention thrown the way of the story, but I had no idea it was multiple NY Times articles and things like that. That meeting was on the fourth day of our detention, so up until that point we had no idea that anyone in the world had any idea where we were. At that time I was just feeling fortunate the Chinese government told the U.S. State Dept. that we were in China, detained and alive--and not so much thinking about what was going on outside, but hoping what they were telling us was true, we were going to serve the 10 days and be let go. Because my Chinese inquisitors were saying that was all a show and that in fact we could be charged with a crime and our departure from China only depended on our complete and total cooperation with the investigation.
So what happened, what did they say to you after they arrested you? Initially they told us that they knew we were up to something, and they knew that what we were doing was underground and that it was illegal in both the United States and in China, and that they would be working with the U.S. to shut down our operation. When we asked what we had done we were told that we had attempted to kill the Chinese government, and in my case I hadn't actually wielded the knife, I had made the knife, and if I didn't tell them who the hand was they would suspect I was the head of the operation. They told us we had already done enough to be sentenced for the rest of our lives, we would never leave China again. When I said I like Chunghwa cigarettes they said, "I'm glad you like them, you'll be smoking them for the rest of your life." They told one of the guys they could shoot him, they might shoot him, and they should shoot him.
Did anyone speak English? All the interviews were conducted with several inquisitors at once. In my case there were three people in the room. A woman whose badge number was 1300, who was my secret police translator. And she said to me, "Don't think of me as a police officer, think of me as a translator," and then she began to rigorously interrogate me. There was another man whose job was to ask a bunch of questions, his badge number was 3250, and he had to write everything I said down in triplicate, which makes an interview take a long ass time. And then there was their boss, badge number 3158, who oversaw the process and would occasionally interject harsh language about what I might expect to do with the rest of my life. My personal feeling was the people doing the inquisition were in training, like a torture squad in training, and that the higher ranking guy was their boss and they were doing what U.S. anti-terror task force people do, which is use protesters as practice for crowd control, but in this case they were doing it with interrogation techniques.
Would you say the interrogations were torture? Well, I think probably, a lot of people might disagree, even some of my other detainees might feel like what they received wasn't torture. And relative to what someone might receive on a daily basis at a place like Gitmo it certainly is not particularly harsh. It's kind of like being a little bit pregnant, we were a little bit tortured. We were strapped into chairs in uncomfortable positions, we were put into cages with blood on the floor and told we would never live, we were sleep deprived the entire time. There was an interrogation every night and they kept us up all day. They never turned the lights off in the cells. We were fed food that was inedible, we were not given potable water. Any time you threaten and take the numbers of family members and take down home addresses, there's an element of mental torture there. There's physical torture in the form of us having to sit in uncomfortable positions all day long and spending the night strapped to a metal chair inside of a cage. We all have cuts and bruises from that, and some of my peers were beaten up a little bit.
Were there any Chinese nationals with you? No nationals, and that's basically why we do this, because there are Tibetans in exile, who would do what we did themselves, and put their lives on the line, but they're not issued passports. And Chinese nationals who would say something would be thrown into jail for the rest of their lives. So the next best thing is Americans of conscience who believe (like we did) they're not going to get detained, but simply deported. So yeah, we make sure there are no Chinese nationals involved and we don't take their assistance inside, and that's to protect those people who would suffer much worse consequences than us.
Were you saying they told you that you should be worried about yourself and your safety even once released to the U.S.? They told me that our country and their country worked in tight collaboration, and that a Chinese hand can reach across the sea. They took my address and house keys, and my wife's phone number. While there was no explicit threat, like we're going to kill you when you get back if you talk about this, when I had my final interrogation, strapped into a metal chair in a cage with blood on the floor, they told me they hoped I would tell the truth when I got home.
They began to ask me what I thought of Chinese policy, like the one child policy, and they asked about the air quality in Beijing. And they said, well listen we just hope you'll tell the truth when we release you, there was this quiet idea that when I went home this wasn't over. These statements I was signing in triplicate and putting my fingerprints on were my commitment to them to say basically they treated us like princes, and that we were really sorry for what we did. I mean, I've never been trained by the U.S. government to withstand torture, so yeah, I'm shutting windows I wouldn't normally shut, and me and my collaborators are seeing people taking our photos from a distance and we wonder if they're Chinese nationals taking photos of us.
On the inside, when I was being held, I kept telling myself "You're really exaggerating this, Powderly. You're such a pompous, arty douchebag," and I didn't believe it and it turned out it was all true. So now I'm starting to think I should trust those instincts. The Chinese are in NYC and LA and I've been told by friends in the Tibetan in exile government that this is the case and that they live with the constant knowledge that the Chinese aren't far away from them.
Do you think all in all it was successful in raising awareness? I think if the U.S. State Dept and the White House released a press release on the closing ceremonies that the success of the Olympics was marred by the reality of their attitude towards free speech. I think that we did something that we never actually thought we'd be capable of doing. Our president went to the opening ceremonies of these games, and by the closing ceremonies our government and the White House are releasing a press release condemning them for their treatment of protesters.
In the span of just 17 days or so, the U.S. attitude shifted, at least slightly. All we wanted to do was speak to two groups of people. People around the world who were watching the Olympics thinking this is a real celebration of China's entrance into the world community. We wanted them to see that, no, China's not yet ready to deal with the responsibility of being a full member of the UN, is not following the UN Charter, is not participating on the same level.
And the other group of people we wanted to speak to were young Chinese nationals who might still be on the fence about their own government.
Do you get any sense that Chinese people have objections to the government, or have they just internalized all the oppression and are just not thinking about the bigger picture about how the government oppresses them. Well, I have an interesting perspective on it. On the one hand all my contact was with nationals who were members of the secret police, who seemed fairly committed to what they were doing. On the other hand I was being held in detention cells with Chinese nationals being held for their protest activities. I met a man who had been involved in a demonstration and he got sentenced for 11 years in a criminal jail. Which he served one year, the provincial police took him to his home, he got a shower, he said hello to his wife, he had a drink of orange juice or something and he got immediately back on a train and went to Beijing and held a banner in Tienanmen Square. At that point he was sentenced 10 days in administrative detention, which was the same thing I received. So China is changing, he went from an 11 year sentence for doing something. He did the same thing next time, one year later, and he got detention.
So when they say that they're liberalizing, and opening up, I think that they are. You know. There are definitely Chinese nationals who are willing to speak out. So I completely disagree with the mainstream media when they say Chinese people are brainwashed. I think that's Western propaganda. And I completely disagree when they say Chinese people are thugs, because the ones I met were cordial and polite to the point of changing my attitude towards tourists in NYC--you know, I'll never be the same dickhead to tourists.
But yeah, they just essentially don't have the same access to multiple perspectives that we do. Hopefully if China loosens up, if it starts with the press then it'll end with changing attitudes, and not every national will agree, and I don't expect them all to agree that Tibet should be free. Our hope is only that we can convince people that Tibet deserves a voice, and access to free press and free speech. And all of those things the UN charter make very explicit.