For me the approach of Christmas Eve last week also marked the approach of freedom. It was the time when I finally emerged from the prisons of the Chinese Communist Party, a joyous day made possible by the efforts and sacrifice of my wife, He Xintong, and my daughter, Xu Jin, by support from friends in the United States and many other countries around the world, and by the governments of the United States and other democracies.

The actual length of time I spent behind bars this time was only four years and 25 days -- much less than the 12 years and 48 days of my first imprisonment. But the hardship of my family and friends in their attempts to secure my release was far greater this time.

Then, within a space of 12 hours on Christmas Eve, my status underwent a dramatic change from prisoner to free man, as I arrived in Chicago. I went on from there to New York, where I looked down from the plane and saw the sparkling lights of a white Christmas in the city.

But the joy of reuniting with my family alternated with deep reflection and worry about my many friends in China, people with whom I had struggled for the cause of freedom, democracy and human rights. So many are either still in jail or carrying on resistance in the face of terrifying political pressure, always under the threat of being followed, monitored, detained or imprisoned. These feelings confirmed in me a basic belief: that only when the single-party dictatorship of the Communist Party is ended will China be on the path to constitutional democracy, and only then will my friends and all the Chinese people live in an environment of respect for human rights, one in which fear is absent.

The streets of New York, this great city run on the principles of democracy, were like a dream to me -- the magnificent, castle-like skyscrapers rising up to touch the clouds, the beauty of holiday decorations. But as I walked along with my wife and daughter, I could not help thinking of my first stint in prison. As punishment for keeping a prison diary and smuggling it out to be published in the United States, I was transferred from my solitary cell -- itself a jail-within-a-jail -- and put in a confinement cell only three square meters in area. I was there for four years, from 1985 to 1989.

In my second prison term I had, by the beginning of 1999, contracted hepatitis B. I felt older and older, weaker and weaker; my glossy black hair went completely white. It seemed, finally, that there was no alternative to releasing me on "medical parole"; otherwise I would have died of illness in prison.

Now I am reunited with my family, and have a chance once again to work for China's democratization. I also have a chance to reflect on the question: Why has progress toward democracy, freedom and human rights in China been so difficult and faltering? I will certainly take the opportunity of this visit to the United States and Europe, the birthplaces of democracy in the West, to study the ways in which a democratic system is established and put into practice.

Seeing people of all different colors walking peaceably along the same New York streets provides one insight. I know that there has been much strife and sorrow in the history of the United States and the world because of differences: religious, political, racial. But in responding to the call of democratic beliefs, people come to realize that democracy is not merely a political system but a way of life. Only when people respect freedom, human rights and the many things that make them different, only when they realize that democracy is as essential as bread, air and water -- only then has constitutional democracy truly planted its roots.

This Christmas Eve inspired blessings in my heart: blessings for my friends everywhere and for all the people of my homeland.

The writer, a founder of the democracy movement in China, was released from prison last week. This article was translated by Benjamin L. Read.