Released after six days in jail, artist James Powderly and other activists for Tibetan rights were deported from China as the Olympics closing ceremonies were concluding on Sunday night in Beijing.
As reported on the Students for a Free Tibet website, the Chinese government, bowing to international pressure, released the detainees earlier than expected, in an effort to defuse bad publicity that had cast a shadow on the Olympic games.
Powderly has been debriefed in Artnet regarding his activities in Beijing, his arrest, his time in a Chinese jail, and his planned art activism going forward.
From the article:
The real cloak-and-dagger part of Powderly’s adventure began when he arrived in Beijing on Aug. 15 without a finished device. "I assumed that I would do the prototyping in Beijing," he said. On Aug. 16, he made contact with a member of Students for a Free Tibet, and did a "suitcase swap," giving the activist a container of LED lights and batteries he had brought into the country, while the SFT representative gave him items he could repurpose to create his device, including a laser printer and transparencies. On Aug. 18, at an apartment on the outskirts of the city, he finished his prototype, testing it out by projecting two small-scale messages out of his window, using the test slogans "I<3 China" and "Free Beer" (both insider references to the power of wired activism). It was, he says, the only artistic project that he would get to do in China.
By this time, Powderly says that he had also become aware that he was being followed, having noticed a woman tailing him at the Beijing Wal-Mart Superstore, where he had picked up materials to complete the laser. Seeing the same woman once again on the subway, Powderly had pretended to be falling asleep, then threw himself abruptly from the car at his stop, believing that he had thereby lost her. Later, he met with a group of fellow activists at a bar to discuss the possibility that they were being surveilled -- only to be greeted outside by the same woman, and a large team of secret police. Powderly was seized, along with the other "Free Tibet" activists: Brian Conley, Jeff Goldin, Tom Grant, Michael Liss and Jeffrey Rae.
The six Americans were taken in SUVs to what Powderly describes as a "Russian Hotel," where they were interrogated extensively. "They alternated treating us politely, telling us it was a mistake and asking me what it was like to be an artist," then changed gears, "telling me that I was going to die in mainland China," Powderly recounts. "They would give you all the water you wanted, but they wouldn’t let you use the bathroom. They would give you cigarettes, but they wouldn’t let me take my medicine for Crone’s disease." He says that the Chinese secret service had emails, text message communications and transcripts of their phone calls, already translated into Chinese. After hours of interrogation, the six were driven to Chongwen Detention Center outside of Beijing, where they were stripped, given medical examinations and uniforms, and put into the general population.
Actual jail time is highly unusual for American activists detained in China. In fact, even the activists who successfully unfurled the LED "Free Tibet" in front of the Olympic Stadium on Aug. 19 were simply deported after a few hours. Powderly and his cohorts, on the other hand, were summarily sentenced to 10 days for "disrupting public order."
In jail, he says, they were kept in a state of uncertainty as to their fate. Powderly was held in what he describes as a 10 x 5 meter cell, shared with numerous other prisoners. Among his cellmates was "Emmanuel," a Ghanaian man who had a PhD in economics who spoke Mandarin and English, but who had overstayed his visa, and a man named "Roger," who was from Cameroon, and who also had an expired visa. Another cellmate was a 51-year-old Mongolian man who claimed to have no idea why he was there. None knew how long they would be held.
Activities in Chongwen were strictly regimented. "Thirty minutes standing, thirty minutes walking in a circle, two hours of nap, and so on," Powderly recounts. Each day, he was taken to the "Inquisition Room," which the artist describes as "blood-spattered, really like something from a movie," where he was sat in a metal chair and asked the same set of questions about what he had been planning and what he was doing in China over and over again. "After a while, the questions became pretty pointless," he said.
After four days, Powderly and the others were allowed to go to the U.S. embassy, where they were told that there was little that could be done for them. They could only hope that the Chinese would hold them for no longer than the 10-day sentence. After six days, the six activists were released and Powderly returned to New York. As a parting gesture, the Chinese secret service agents who drove him to the airport took the $200 from his wallet.