Truth beyond bars: Jiang Weiping on being jailed for work

Jiang Weiping, a 2001 CPJ Press Feedom Award winner, spoke on Tuesday on a panel organized by the Ford Foundation in Washington, along with CPJ board member Clarence Page and Executive Director Joel Simon. The panel addressed the concerning number of journalists jailed worldwide–125, according to CPJ’s 2008 census–and discussed how advocacy by CPJ and other groups can improve that figure. Jiang’s wife, Stella Li, translated his speech and a poem that he wrote in prison for CPJ:

Ladies and gentlemen,

I feel very happy to be in Washington to attend this event today, especially during spring, a season that symbolizes rebirth and renewal.

First of all, I would like to express my sincere thanks to the Ford Foundation for facilitating this opportunity to meet all of you, whom I had never met before but respect deeply from my heart for your strong support for press freedom around the world. I would also like to give thanks to the Committee to Protect Journalists in New York. In November 2001, almost one year after I had been arrested, I was still in detention and denied family visits–even denied access to reading materials. I knew nothing of what was happening beyond my jail cell. It was the most difficult period in my life. I suffered greatly from stomach disease and did not have access to medical treatment. I felt so helpless. One day, a very kind prison guard came to me and secretly handed me a note. It was a letter from my wife. I was told that the Committee to Protect Journalists had honoured me with a Press Freedom Award. I also learned that many people whom I had never known before showed great interest in my case and were petitioning for my release. This was great encouragement during those dark days! I felt so happy and humbled for this honour, knowing that so many other journalistic colleagues deserve the award more. I no longer felt alone. I believed that, no matter how long and difficult the road ahead, one day I would return home and pick up my pen again. Without your support during those days, I would not be standing here today. Let me say: Thank you, thank you all!

Now, I cannot but help think of another media friend, a former senior reporter for Asia Weekly magazine in Hong Kong: Mr. Wang Jian Min. His timely report about my case roused world-wide media attention outside of China, which resulted in my secret arrest becoming a public case. After being released from prison in 2006, I paid a special visit to Wang Jian Min and his family in Shenzhen. I said to him: the Press Freedom Award is your honor, too. He laughed and was so happy to see me again. Both of us knew that the Press Freedom Award provided great encouragement to countless journalists in China. The award is given not to one particular person, but to all journalists who carry out their duties and tell the truth. It supports and encourages many reporters in China who care about press freedom in order to promote democracy and freedom in the world’s most populous country.

After I was finally reunited with my family in Canada just two months ago, my wife and I were invited to a dinner by a Canadian poet who had also worked as a journalist. He asked me a question that I had been asked frequently following my release from prison: Why had I risked writing articles that exposed high-level state corruption when I could have lived a decent, comfortable life?

By way of answer, let me begin by saying that I come from a poor family. I endured hardship during my childhood and spent my youth in the countryside amid the Cultural Revolution. My parents were like most other people, struggling to make a living in a grass-roots society. I was brought up to be a just man.

I graduated from university in 1982, started my work as an editor and journalist in a local newspaper. Later, I worked for Xinhua news agency and, following that, as the senior reporter and the chief of the northern China bureau of the Hong Kong-based newspaper, Wen Hui Po.

In my 18-year career as a journalist, I met and interviewed many people from the lower levels of society. Because of China’s inadequate legal system and rampant corruption, the voices of these people have not been heard, their needs neglected and their suffering ignored. I believe the journalist has a duty to report the truth.

I remember one day in 1998 when two unexpected visitors showed up at my office in Dalian. The young ladies came from Ha Er Bin in Heilong Jiang province. It took them over 10 hours by train to get to Dalian. After stepping into my office, one of the ladies, Zhang Jian Hua, knelt down and began to cry very hard. I let her calm down and listened to her story. Her father was a famous layer who had been persecuted by a local official and died in detention. She wanted me to report her father’s case in Wen Hui Po in Hong Kong, because none of the local media would touch it because of possible reprisals from influential local officials. She wanted justice for her father’s death. Her story shocked me, and I felt sorry that I could not really help, because I was quite sure that such an exposé would not get published in Wen Hui Po, since it was under the control of Chinese Communist Party.

As it happened, on my desk was the recent issue of the Hong Kong-based magazine Asia Weekly. I was very impressed by the articles written by Wang Jian Min for the magazine. I had never met him in person before, but knew him by name. I immediately got in touch with him to discuss the case. He agreed to come and meet with Ms. Zhang.

Wang Jian Min went to Dalian and Ha Er Bin to conduct interviews. During that time, I stayed in touch and followed developments. Soon after, Asia Weekly published the full story of Zhang’s father. She was very happy. She wanted to come to Dalian to give me some money as a gesture of thanks. I refused, telling her that I was just doing what I, as a journalist, should be doing.

Two years later, in 2000, I was arrested for an investigative piece published in Qian Shao magazine, which is based in Hong Kong. They exposed high-level state corruption. I was charged with having revealed state secrets overseas and subverting state power, and authorities had included my help to Ms. Zhang as evidence of that.

“We have been watching you for long time,” they warned me when I was interrogated. “Nothing you did escaped our eyes.”

Following a closed trial in Dalian intermediate court, I was sentenced to eight years’ imprisonment, later reduced to six years on appeal.

Being a journalist is a high-risk job in China; the government strictly controls the media. Reporters overseas come under special scrutiny.

Ladies and gentleman, more then 30 years ago, in 1972, two young reporters from The Washington Post, Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, brought down a U.S. president with their investigative report on the Watergate scandal. They received international recognition for their work. Almost 30 years later in another part of the world, a Chinese journalist was put into prison for six years because of reports exposing the corruption by local officials. One of the officials involved remains in a position of high authority in the government. What a difference in the fate of journalists under two different political systems!

The year 1905 saw a well-known case of press freedom in Shanghai. Zou Rong and Zhang Tai Yan were sentenced to death by the Qing dynasty because of an article that had criticized the emperor. The case was publicly reported and it became well-known at the time. When Zhang was released from prison, he was allowed to go to Japan for exile. Zou, on the other hand, died in prison. One hundred years later, like Zou and Zhang, I was put in prison also because of words. The difference is that, when I was arrested, no domestic media outlet reported on my case. When I finally got my release from prison in 2006, I was still under surveillance and not allowed a passport to travel to Canada to be reunited with my family. One hundred years, and the situation for press freedom has not progressed much!

As you can see, the road to press freedom in China will be long and difficult. It will demand commitment from all journalists.

In spite of five years and one month of imprisonment, followed by three years under security surveillance after my release, my vision of a free press in China has not been shaken, and neither has my commitment to prevent corruption as well as promote democracy and the rule of law.

Today, I am free, but there are many journalists in the world working under dangerous situations. We should all continue to show our concern and work for their release. The work is hard, but it has to be done.

Thank you.


Soldier, I Hear You Sing


Soldier, I hear you sing

as the gorgeous curtain of night descends

and fireworks explode in the seaside city.

Your song is as freighted and lonely as mine.

Let’s thank our messenger–the wind of early spring.


I know that we could only speak with eyes,

feel the same tears, the same choking sobs.

I feel no hatred, nor has it made me mute,

only the impact of our hearts and what we know.

The noise of night is what we share.


Soldier, I hear you sing

in the local accent with public feeling.

Once during days of freedom

my steps broke through thick ice.

I know there’s no bullet in your barrel.

I will not escape. I love this wall.


You walk with regular strides,

breaking your notes with your own steps.

Fate punishes all those who think.

Because of the monitor above your head

freedom has been painted blank, a color heavy

with helpless love and helpless hate.


You repeat the same dull story within your bounds.

How many kindly Chinese it lulls to sleep

who you help, you should know.

I wander within my ten-square-meter cell

but the truth within me has passed beyond these bars.


Soldier, I cherish what you sing

with the sadness and pain inside me.

You tell me that though you walk free within your bounds

your words silenced by storm are my own.

The spring wind blows sand into your eyes.

How cannot your mood have the weight of mine?


Nanguan-ling Prison, New Year’s Eve 2004