U.S. Video Blogger Recounts His Beijing Arrest

The 2008 Olympic Games, which wrapped last weekend, have been heralded as a success and China's coming out party as a superpower. But the face Beijing presented to the world—organized, efficient, well-governed—masked a few troubling truths. The Chinese government set aside zones where people would be allowed to demonstrate during the Olympics, but then refused to approve any protest applications. (Two Chinese women in their late 70s were even sentenced to a year of "reeducation through labor" for applying too many times.) Also detained last month were 37 Americans involved in protests organized by Students for a Free Tibet. One of them, Brian Conley, was arrested on Aug. 13. Conley—a popular video blogger and co-founder of Small World News, which produces two Web sites devoted to independent journalism—says he was on hand to film the protests and that he was arrested simply for recording the event. (Calls to the Chinese embassy in Washington, D.C., were not immediately returned.)

Police arrived at his hotel room in the middle of the night, saying they were investigating alleged threats against foreigners in China. But then the questioning got intense (they repeatedly asked Conley what he was doing in Beijing and what his role was in the Tibet protests) and dragged on for nearly 22 hours, according to Conley. They confiscated his gear and his asthma inhaler—but not before some footage was distributed online (see above). He was also able to send a text message, to his pregnant wife, letting her know that he had been detained. Conley was taken to the Chong Wen detention center, given a prison uniform, and locked in a cell with nine other prisoners from around the world. He was told that he'd be held for 10 days, but after aggressive intervention by the American Embassy, he was released after six, on the final day of the Games. He was then driven to the Beijing Airport, and ordered to buy a $1,800 ticket on Air China to Los Angeles—even though he already had a return flight booked on a different day.

Conley, 28, is home in Philadelphia now. He spoke with NEWSWEEK's Brian Braiker about his experience in Beijing, where, he says, he was treated better than some of his fellow prisoners (although he says he was smacked around at the airport for making an obscene gesture at a police officer). Excerpts:

NEWSWEEK: You say you weren't in China to protest. What sort of work do you usually do?
Brian Conley:
We recently did a story about child soldiers in Iraq. For the most part, we do stuff that's a lot closer to the ground to what CNN and other television media are doing. I interviewed Iraqi refugees who work as sex workers in Syria.

I heard about your arrest through Twitter first. Word spread quickly online.
So I've heard. I didn't really know anything until Friday the 22nd, when the embassy came to the detention center. We kind of expected that stuff was going on and that people were sort of aware that things were happening but we didn't really have any confirmation. I sent the text message to my wife while I was being interrogated, so I knew they knew about it on the outside. I've been arrested overseas and I know what the laws are and what rights we have as Americans.

So you were never all that worried?
I wasn't really that concerned because of the way things were happening. There was a lot of bluster from the Chinese police but I didn't feel much actual serious threat. This was in the middle of the Olympics. This is the harshest treatment any American activists have ever had, related to Tibet in China. [Some Chinese dissidents and adherents to the Falun Gong faith, however, have been tortured and even murdered at the hands of the government.]

What do you make of the mainstream coverage that you have seen of the Olympics and China's handling of it?
No disrespect to your magazine or any other mainstream coverage, but it's pretty indicative why things like [my site] Alive in Baghdad are necessary. Just look at the initial stories that came out of my arrest and the shoddy media work that went into examining what actually happened. I was not involved in Free Tibet protests on the streets of Beijing, which is what all the media coverage said. That was the impression AP and Reuters and AFP gave, and then you see newspapers pick up those things and parrot them. This is how things have been done, unfortunately.

Did you get a sense of how China would have normally responded? Were they easier or harder on you, do you think, because of the Olympics?
The impression I got was that the security situation was much more excessive regarding everything during the Olympics. There were a whole slew of people who were arrested for scalping and arbitrarily given 10 days at Chong Wen—and I was told by several Europeans, at the detention center, that European governments were up in arms over this. A lot of it was just people trying to trade tickets because their country had less tickets than others. One of the guys in my cell, his best friend was on the Dutch fencing team. Even the guy's mother and sister weren't able to get tickets to see him fence because China refused to allow family members to get tickets ahead of time. Everything was excessive.

How were you treated once you were detained?
As an American, I definitely was treated much better than the Chinese or even other Asian detainees. We got more food than we were interested in eating. We would pool all the food for the Chinese. The whole thing was really bizarre. It was like a bad kid's summer camp. All the rules were geared toward accepting that you've done wrong and making yourself better, by working hard and being polite to your cell mates and supervisors. Every morning we had to get up and address the guard and say, "Good morning sir, how are you?" and sound off when our names were called.

Your firstborn is due at the end of October. Were you worried that you might not make it back in time?
A little bit. Not really. They were going to hold us till a week after the Olympics initially. I was told that's the shortest sentence that any foreigner received.

There must be people who are still detained there.
I expected to be one of the last people released from my cell other than a Korean guy who was a political prisoner. The Dutch guy should be home now. A German guy, a guy from Cameroon, a guy from Lebanon—all these people who had visa issues—may have been released since the Olympics are over. It's really unclear.

Did you witness any violence at all?
I was hit a number of times at the airport, just before leaving, but other than that there wasn't really anything.

As I understand it, you were hit for giving a cop the finger. Right?
They were constantly taking pictures of us and filming us to show they were treating us well. I was sick of it. Looking back I recognize it wasn't a good idea. I was tired—I had been awake for 30 hours.

Were you told why you had been detained?
The Chinese authorities made it very clear that the reason we were given 10 days administrative detention and not simply deported, as the activists had been, was because we were doing media work and because we were insuring people outside, [that] China saw dissent happening inside China. There was no bones about it—because we were doing media work we were targeted for excessive response.