Bei Ling was fascinated with China's dissidents and the literary underground. The Boston-based poet and critic, 40, who left Beijing in 1988, cultivated controversial figures such as writer Liu Xiaobo and exile Wang Dan; both had spent time in jail for helping lead the 1989 democracy movement. Bei Ling laced his literary journal, Tendency, which is sold in Taiwan and Hong Kong, with pro-democracy writings. During a visit to Beijing early this year, Bei Ling seemed to think the government had become less repressive. He boasted about visiting Liu's home: "Each time I go, the police are standing outside. But what can they do?" he said. "Times have changed, and the situation has loosened up."
Not as much as he thought. Bei Ling, who is a U.S. permanent resident, traveled to Beijing in late May. On Aug. 11 he planned to attend a cultural forum. Bei Ling never showed up. He was detained by police, arrest-ed and held incommunicado in Qinghe Detention Center. Last Thursday his brother Huang Feng, 32, was also detained by police. Bei's stateside supporters warned that the arrest could rouse anti-Beijing sentiment on the eve of a congressional debate over granting permanent normal trading status to China. U.S. authorities have protested the detention, too. "Freedom of expression is a core issue for the U.S.," says Joseph Prueher, Washington's ambassador to Beijing, citing "a fundamental difference with China." Boston-based Tendency cofounder Meng Lang says he'll proceed with plans to put the journal on the Web later this year. "The Internet is breaking down the Communist Party's tools of control," Meng says. Just not fast enough to help a daring poet.