Friends, I want to tell you a little about the current issue of National Review–particularly a piece I wrote about a man who was recently released from a Chinese prison. His name is Charles Lee, and I mentioned him in an NRO article two weeks ago. (That article concerns alleged horrors at Sujiatun.)
Dr. Lee is a physician, and a practitioner of Falun Gong. He emigrated to America in 1991, becoming a citizen in 2002. He studied and worked at Harvard Medical School and Massachusetts General Hospital, among other places.
In January 2003, he flew back to China, in order to help his fellow Falun Gong practitioners. They endure vicious persecution by the PRC, and their movement is subjected to constant propaganda. Dr. Lee wanted to counter some of this propaganda. His plan was to tap into a television network and air a 45-minute tape about Falun Gong, detailing the regime’s abuses.
He never had a chance. Immediately on arriving at the airport in Guangzhou, he was arrested. After what he describes as a “show trial,” he was sentenced to three years.
Those were three harrowing years, and I write about them in some detail in this magazine piece (although not in sensational detail). Suffice it to say that Dr. Lee went through a lot. For instance, the authorities forced him to sit on a bench, staring straight ahead into a wall, for almost 50 straight days. Dr. Lee told me, “Your body starts to rot.” Eventually, his heart began to fail, and he had trouble breathing. They allowed him to see a doctor, and that ended that particular punishment.
I asked him whether he thought he would die, at any time during the three-year ordeal. He said, “Yes. There was constant pressure. Constant pressure.” He likened his experience to that of Prometheus, whom Zeus chained to a rock: Prometheus had his liver eaten out every day. Authorities at the prison had a sweet message for Dr. Lee: “We will make living worse for you than dying.” Reports Dr. Lee, “They were very good at mental torture,” as well as physical. “Some people mention the concept of ‘the genocide of souls’–they kill your soul. They let you become a nobody.”
Here’s an issue I want to bring up with you–in fact, I have before, in different contexts. During certain periods of his confinement, Dr. Lee was made to work, in prison sweatshops. He assembled Christmas lights, in brutal conditions. At another time, he made bedroom slippers, with Homer Simpson’s image on them. (You know Homer: the dad from the television cartoon.) You put your foot where Homer’s mouth is.
I asked Dr. Lee, “What do you think of people who buy those bedroom slippers?” He said, “Oh, they just want the cheapest product. But I feel that, if they knew about my situation, it would bother them.”
No kidding. I have never known quite what to think about this issue (and a journalist should never write before he knows what he thinks, but this is Impromptus–and we do things a bit breezily and casually here). I’m a free-trader; I’m a globalizer. I know that globalization has been a huge boon to the average Chinese, as to the average American, as to everyone else.
Regular readers know that I am a stalwart appreciator of Wal-Mart. Just about all of their products come from the PRC. And, obviously, most Chinese workers are not slaves, and not political prisoners, and not tortured.
But I hear about Laogai–the Chinese Gulag–and the manufacturing that goes on there. And then I encounter Charles Lee: who, in between bouts of torture, was made to make Homer slippers. I think I would have a hard time putting my foot into one of them. And how about hanging those Christmas lights?
Several years ago, in a fit of idealism–probably misguided–I decided I would try–merely try–not to buy PRC products. I had read one too many Laogai reports. My efforts lasted about three days. Maybe two–I can’t remember. Have you ever tried to buy an umbrella not made in China? Good luck–you could be standing in the rain for quite a while.
Again, I am a free-trader, and a globalizer, and I am far from blind to the blessings of such a system. Indeed, I spend a fair amount of my professional life pointing out these blessings. But no one meeting Charles Lee could fail to wince, and have another think or two.
I have something else to bring up with you: Toward the end of my conversation with Dr. Lee, I asked him whether he would consider going back to China–to face the state once more. He said, “Yes, I will go back, if I have the chance.” But why would he do that? Given those long, hard months from January 2003 to January 2006, why? He said, in part, “If we Falun Gong practitioners don’t help other Falun Gong practitioners, who will? We have to be the first ones who stand up.”
You should have seen the conviction in his eyes when he said this.
I’m always sort of amazed by such people. Solzhenitsyn titles his memoir “The Oak and the Calf,” drawing on an old Russian image: A calf butts up against a mighty oak, trying to topple it. This is a symbol of futility, or of a vain, childish belief. And yet, A. Solzh. was a calf who toppled a gigantic and malevolent oak.
Sometimes the greatest people puzzle me. When I was younger, I couldn’t understand why Solzhenitsyn was so upset about being exiled–about being kicked out of the Soviet Union. I thought of it as a vast prison, from which anyone would want to be released. “Oh, exile me, please!” Plus, Solzhenitsyn could write and campaign in utter freedom, greatly increasing his effectiveness. But the author felt differently.
I acquired more understanding when I met Maritza Lugo, in 2002. Let me provide some excerpts from the piece I wrote at the time (appearing in the February 21, 2002, issue of National Review):
Maritza Lugo Fernández left Cuba for American shores on January 11. Her reception at the airport in Miami was tumultuous. For many years, she has been one of the most stirring of Cuba’s political prisoners and democratic oppositionists. Not yet 40 years old, she has been jailed more than 30 times. Her husband, Rafael Ibarra Roque, is president of one of the country’s main opposition groups; he is in the eighth year of a 20-year sentence in one of Castro’s prisons.
I interviewed Lugo at the home of supporters in New Jersey. Her face is serious, troubled, and absorbed; she looks as though she had a great weight on her shoulders. She did not want exile. She felt she had no choice, however, as her younger daughter, age eleven, had been increasingly miserable. The constant harassment by the regime and the ever-present danger had taken their toll. Sometimes both parents were in prison, which posed a particular hardship. Many Cubans dream of leaving for the United States–and die trying–but it was an excruciating sacrifice for Lugo to leave her husband, her cause, and her country. She did so for the girl. It seems certain, though, that Cuba has not seen the last of her.
The regime was only too happy to see Lugo go–they had been “encouraging” her to leave for many years. Her activities had gotten under their skin, of course. An effective, heroic, fearless oppositionist like Lugo “contaminates” others, which is to say, inspires them, and emboldens them. Lugo had also attracted a little international attention–so the regime felt it was better off without her.
And so on. While talking with Maritza that day, I told her that she had made me understand Solzhenitsyn as never before. She nodded. She, of course, understood the mighty Russian perfectly.
It may seem crazy that Charles Lee should want to go back to China, in an effort to do something–anything–for his fellows. And yet we can see his point. They are there, he is here. They are bearing the brunt of oppression; it is hard to watch–hard for some–from safety. People are simply propelled, and nothing can stop them.
Of course, these people don’t grow on trees.
One final word about Charles: While he was in prison, he had an angel: Yeong-Ching Foo, his fiancée. I met her, too, when I talked with Charles. During the prison years, Yeong-Ching was in the United States, working in Charles’s behalf. She did everything she could, including staying on top of U.S. officials (for Charles, remember, is an American citizen). She reminded me of Avital Sharansky, who never rested while Anatoly was in the Gulag. She reminded me of another Fu–different spelling–Christina, who is the wife of Jian-li Yang. He is right now in a PRC prison. (The relevant website is here.)
And she reminded me, frankly, of Leonore, in Beethoven’s opera Fidelio. Disguising herself, Leonore finds work in the prison whose dungeon contains her husband. She will not simply leave him there.
The dissidents, political prisoners, and activists I have met over the years have not been all alike. But obviously they have many things in common. A constant theme is “I can’t just do nothing.” That was the title of that piece about Maritza Lugo. In fact, have another excerpt:
One cannot help being curious about what makes Lugo different from the mass of people: Why is she so brave and straightforward? How has she kept her sanity and morality in that system, which beats down individuals and breaks up families? She seems a little perplexed by the question: “People should be free. They should have basic rights. I see Rafael [her husband] being a victim all the time, and many others like him. I can’t just do nothing.”
‐On to something lighter–much–but not unimportant: Thank you, thank you, to everyone who came to the NR/NRO shindig in Houston last Wednesday night. Was a grand time (I thought), and the room was full of grand people. Jonah, Kate, and the rest of our stars were at their starriest. A young guest—a mezzo-soprano from Rice University—sang. Derb sang too. The room melted.
‐Speaking of music: Care for a little criticism, from the New York Sun? For a review of a recital by Vadim Repin, violin, and Nikolai Lugansky, piano, please go here.
Care for some more music criticism? For my March “New York Chronicle,” in The New Criterion, please go here. The rest of that archive may be found here. The current chronicle–April’s–requires that you register, or subscribe.
And you do subscribe, don’t you? To hell with my music chronicle: If you’re missing The New Criterion, you’re missing a world of edification and delight.
‐Care for some language? Sitting in an airport the other day, my brilliant friend Ted Cruz, solicitor general of Texas, gave me this little puzzle, which I failed to solve. The following is a sentence, given without punctuation–the trick is to punctuate it:
Jane while John had had had had had had had had had had had the teacher’s approval.
And how do you do it? (The solution is coming, so if you don’t want to see it yet, please look away, or something.) Well, Jane and John submitted their school papers–and you’ll see why Jane got the higher grade:
Jane, while John had had “had,” had had “had had”; “had had” had had the teacher’s approval.
‐Guys, did you see this story in the Guardian (or Al-Guardian, as a friend of mine calls it)? Here is an excerpt:
The food [at Guantánamo Bay] was delicious, the teaching was excellent, and [Naqibullah’s] warders were kind. “Americans are good people, they were always friendly, I don’t have anything against them,” he said. “If my father didn’t need me [in Afghanistan], I would want to live in America.”
Asadullah is even more sure of this. “Americans are great people, better than anyone else,” he said, when found at his elder brother’s tiny fruit and nut shop in a muddy backstreet of Kabul. “Americans are polite and friendly when you speak to them. They are not rude like Afghans. If I could be anywhere, I would be in America. I would like to be a doctor, an engineer–or an American soldier.”
It’s not that I’m surprised by the information contained in the article (at all). It’s . . . the source. Keep going, Guardian!
And once I have praised the Guardian–Al-Guardian–I can hardly continue . . .