LAST YEAR on the Fourth of July I went to the American embassy in Beijing to celebrate two anniversaries: the 213th year of American independence and the first birthday of my U.S. citizenship. At the embassy gate, I was stopped by two Chinese soldiers armed with machine guns. I was not surprised. My face did not fit the Chinese notion of Americans -- fair skin, blue eyes and, unlike flat-nosed Asians, with what Chinese see as "big noses." It was the same image that I myself had held 20 years earlier in elementary school when I was one of Chairman Mao's devoted "Little Red Guards."
The soldiers looked at my passport carefully and with great bewilderment. That is, because they could not read English or French, they looked at my picture and tried to rationalize an obviously Chinese face with a U.S. passport. Despite the machine guns and the soldiers' grim manner, however, I felt no fear at all. I knew the passport was my shield; it had protected me all spring every time the police stopped me while I was working for American journalists during the democracy demonstrations.
But I remembered a very different occasion six years earlier. I had been arrested by plainclothes police outside a small hotel in a provincial town after my American boyfriend had gone back to the "foreigners' hotel" where he was staying. (In China, foreigners still are not allowed to stay in regular Chinese hotels, and local Chinese citizens are not permitted to stay in foreigners' hotels.) This was during Deng Xiaoping's crackdown on the so-called "spiritual pollution" that was a byproduct of China's "open door policy" and was feared by the party. I was arrested because I was socializing with a Westerner.
When the policemen stopped me, I felt as cold as if blood were no longer circulating in my veins. In an effort to keep calm, I kept repeating to myself, "I have done nothing illegal." After the police checked my ID card, one said, "You must follow us." I asked what I had done wrong, but they just shouted back, "Do not ask questions, just come."
I was taken to an interrogation room where five men questioned me all night. It was the worst night of my life. The air in the small room stank from the fumes of five non-stop smokers. The intimate questions they asked could not have been more disgusting. And there was no nonsense about reading a prisoner his rights, or making a call to a lawyer or anybody else.
Even before the questioning started, one of the men warned, "If you do not confess, we will send you to prison." Then another said with a cold smile, "I bet you do not know that blue-eyed, big-nosed American devil is a Russian spy. He came to this town without permission, so you know how serious the situation is." By now I was puzzled as well as scared. I thought: What kind of sense is this -- a Russian spy teaching English at Beijing University, which is what my boyfriend was then doing.
For an hour I simply refused to say anything, because I had nothing to confess. Then the police started on a different tack. "Do not forget your parents are waiting for you," one of them said. "If you show a good attitude and write three or four pages of self-criticism, we will let you go back to Beijing."
My parents are very important to me. I worried that if I could not go back home, my ailing mother would have a heart attack. I could not let that happen, so I started to write a self-criticism according to the policemen's instructions: When and where did I meet my boy friend? What do we do on dates? How many times had we kissed? Did I have a sexual relationship with him?
In the minds of these policemen, the idea that something was personal did not seem to exist. And the accusation that my boyfriend was a spy had completely vanished beneath their fascination with what we did on dates. After reading my first draft of a self-criticism, one of them yelled at me, "You are a liar! We saw you two kiss in the movie theater. You have been polluted by bourgeois spiritual degeneracy."
I suddenly realized that we had been followed and, even though I was still very frightened, I couldn't help but wonder why the Chinese government would pay policemen to do a job like that.
Eventually they did let me go back to Beijing, but there I received the kind of punishment still faced by Chinese who associate with foreigners. I was demoted from my job as a violin player in the Beijing Symphony Orchestra. The orchestra's leaders would not let me take part in rehearsals or performances. Instead, I was locked in a small room for eight hours a day to write more self-criticism. One day when I heard the orchestra playing Tchaikovsky's Sixth Symphony in the rehearsal hall, tears came to my eyes as I realized that I might never again be allowed to do what I enjoy most -- play in a symphony orchestra.
When I asked one of the leaders when I would be allowed to rejoin the orchestra, she said, "Stop daydreaming! The question is, when will we send you to a reeducation farm? You have damaged the reputation of the orchestra and you have to pay the consequences." If that is the kind of punishment they were going to give to a Chinese girl just because she had dated an American, it is not hard to imagine what the government has done and will do to those hundreds of people who are still imprisoned as "counter-revolutionaries" after last year's demonstrations. This Fourth of July I will celebrate my second anniversary as an American citizen by going to the Mall for the music and the fireworks. I know there will be no soldiers to stop me. And although I know I will have a good time, I don't think I will be completely joyful because my thoughts will be with the hundreds of innocent people who have been imprisoned in China since last June, and the millions in China who must hide their real thoughts by saying and writing things they do not believe.
If by chance I could see President Bush on the Mall on Independence Day, I know what I would like to tell him:
Mr. President, there was a moment when you had the power to make life easier for people who cannot now breathe freely. What you did in renewing China's most-favored-nation trading status disappointed many millions of people. You puzzled many millions by saying, "We do not want to punish the wrong people." If that is true, why do you not give the same trade treatment to the Soviet Union and South Africa? The people there need help, too. It is fine that you do not want to punish the wrong people, but in China you have rewarded the wrong government.
I am now a member of the American national family. I always will be grateful to my "blue-eyed American devil" whose persistence in struggling with Chinese officials got me to America instead of to a reeducation farm. But I still care deeply for my Chinese national family. If I could see Deng Xiaoping on the Mall, I know what I would like to tell him as well:
Father Deng, by accusing other nations like America and Canada of polluting your society and interfering in China's internal affairs, you will not encourage your children abroad to come home. It is futile to talk about how these children have "betrayed" you by staying away. Instead, encourage them to come back by treating decently the ones who are still at home. You need the help of your brightest children to build a modern China. The "modernization" they most clearly see is your mistaken updating, with guns and tanks, of the ancient Chinese idea that the discipline of the stick produces a dutiful son.
Kun Tian is a Washington Post copy aide.