Author Denise Chong will be reading from Egg on Mao: The Story of an Ordinary Man who Defaced an Icon and Unmasked a Dictatorship at the North York Central Library, on Wednesday Nov. 4 at 7 p.m.—a Q & A will follow with the author. Call 416-395-5660 to register.
In May 1989, three young men from southern China, inspired by the student reformers then occupying Tiananmen Square and the hope of freedom sweeping their country, travelled 1,500 km to Beijing. Lu Decheng, Yu Zhijian and Yu Dongyue hit on a powerful gesture of defiance against the Communist regime: they would toss paint-filled eggs at the giant oil painting of Mao Zedong that dominated the square physically, and all of China symbolically. Their act 12 days before the army brutally cleared the square on June 4 exhilarated and outraged witnesses. The student protesters themselves, fearing the three men were government agitators, turned them over to the authorities. At first, as noted in Denise Chong’s book, Egg on Mao, in the hopeful atmosphere of the pre-crackdown days, Lu Decheng was treated well. But then everything changed.
On June 15, after the evening meal, guards removed Decheng from his cell. Waiting officers violently slapped handcuffs on him. They shoved and dragged him out into the night. Several army trucks, with canvas-covered tops, were idling inside the prison walls. Soldiers, helmeted and carrying rifles fixed with bayonets, stood nearby. Decheng’s captors ordered him to kneel on all fours on the ground behind a truck. One after another, soldiers used him as a stepstool to climb aboard. Then, the last of them hauled him into the truck, throwing him face down between the benches on each side. With the soldiers now using him as a footrest and their boots pressing him into the gritty floor, Decheng was convinced the army was secretly taking him to be shot. He knew how the condemned went to their death: kneel on the ground, head bowed, then a bullet to the back of the head. Except that in his case, no one but the army would know that he had been killed, only that he had disappeared. Strangely, he felt devoid of emotion, holding on to the only certainty, death.
Twenty minutes later, the army truck jolted to a stop. The engine shuddered into silence. Decheng was hauled off, and soldiers trod on the prisoner as they climbed down from the truck. Suddenly, a bright light pierced the darkness. Decheng saw other army trucks disgorging soldiers, and among them two other handcuffed prisoners, Zhijian and Dongyue. They were lit, like him, by a camera crew filming their arrival.
Soldiers marched the trio toward a small building. Inside were even more armed soldiers. Now Decheng considered death imminent. Soldiers called their names one by one and led each of the three forward to sign documents. Decheng assumed these were their death warrants. When his turn came, he saw that the document before him was instead to acknowledge his formal arrest and the charges against him. He felt his first glimmer of hope; a formal arrest meant a court proceeding, a court proceeding meant a public record of the sentence. If death came, his wife and family would learn of it, and would not be left to wonder about his fate.
Decheng and his two friends were incarcerated—again, apart from each other—at Banbuqiao Prison, locally known as the Half-Step Bridge Detention Centre. Built a century ago, it was a short walk across a bridge from the prison to the execution ground, so prisoners were said to be a half-step from death. Life at this maximum-security prison was starkly different from the Eastern District Detention Centre. Prisoners awaiting trial were shackled 24 hours a day. Rations were paltry. Breakfast was a bowl of congee made from ground corn, and a bowl of potato scraps and a few tough leaves of preserved cabbage, with a scattering of chili seeds. Lunch and supper were two wotou, steamed cornmeal buns called “barbarian heads” because of their pointed shape. Wotou were the poor man’s food in the north; one alone made for a bloated stomach, yet the more one ate, the hungrier one felt.
On his fifth day, Decheng and a cellmate, Lu Guo, noticed their breakfast was enlivened with sugar. Lu Guo’s crime had been to try to stop the advance of a tank in the early hours of June 4 by setting it on fire. After breakfast, the guards hollered out Lu Guo’s name and took him away to court for sentencing. Later that day, a guard came to the cell and a respectful silence fell over the place as he cleared out Lu Guo’s belongings. It was then that Decheng learned the sweetness of the congee served as bitter notice that this would be someone’s last breakfast.
Dignity, the only sustenance that mattered, was a struggle to maintain. The ever-present handcuffs cut deeply into Decheng’s wrists and stiffened his hands and arms. Eating when wearing handcuffs was easiest if the bowl was placed on the floor. Going to the washroom was especially awkward for shackled prisoners. Twice a day, a guard would announce a 10-minute toilet break with a count, “One, two, three!” and 30 to 40 prisoners of his cellblock made a dash for it. To help accommodate everyone in the short time, the cell boss would instruct inmates, in anticipation of the count, when to massage their stomachs to bring themselves to the verge of defecation. Once at the toilets, the handcuffed inmates needed help with their trousers, before and after. Regularly, while waiting for a space, one or more would panic and soil the floor. Hurling abuse at the unfortunate prisoners, the guards would make them use their own clothes to mop up the mess.
A van ride out of the prison announced to the trio the arrival of their trial date. Armed guards led them into a courtroom. To the judge’s left sat two public prosecutors and a court cameraman recording the entire session. To his right was the court clerk, and sitting beside him, their court-appointed lawyers. The three men from Hunan entered the prisoners’ box and remained standing. Behind them sat guards, and behind the guards was a gallery of about 100 people, all strangers to the defendants. The prosecutors read the charge and prosecution documents explaining the case against each of them. Only once during the trial did Decheng listen with curiosity to the evidence—when the prosecution cited the dimensions of Mao’s portrait—six metres by 4.6 m—and showed numerous photographs taken by the management office of Tiananmen Square, documenting where paint and egg had found their mark. After only two hours, the trial was wrapping up. Judge Ding turned to the three accused: “What do you have to say about all this?”
Zhijian made an eloquent statement. He explained their political views, their motives, and what they’d wanted to achieve. He elaborated on why they attacked Mao’s iconic portrait and interpreted the parallel slogans they’d posted underneath it.
Repeatedly, the prosecution interrupted Zhijian. “Stay with the facts! Stop speaking as if you are trying to defend your action!”
Judge Ding, growing impatient, asked several times, “Are you finished?”
Zhijian persisted and after 20 minutes concluded his discourse.
It was Dongyue’s turn. If seized with inspiration, he could be given to speaking quickly and without pause. If not, he either spoke in monosyllables or remained silent. In this instance, he was succinct, saying only that he accepted responsibility for his actions.
Decheng reiterated what Dongyue had said, adding that he hoped the court would be fair in its judgment and sentencing.
The judge called a recess. Minutes later, the court reconvened and he gave his decision: guilty on all charges. The verdict was no surprise; defendants who got to the point of arrest and a trial were presumed to be guilty of all charges. The judge announced that sentencing would be held over to the following month. The trial was over.
The way the guard called his name, everyone in the cellblock knew this was his day of sentencing. Prisoners fell quiet. Oddly, Decheng felt no tension. Why he should feel so relaxed he didn’t know. A fellow prisoner helped him fasten the two top buttons on his jacket, which by now hung grotesquely from his skinny frame.
“Hey! Who’s in charge of opening this door?!” Decheng called out. He couldn’t recall, had the congee been sweeter that morning? Thirty days had passed since the trial. The same entourage reassembled in the same courtroom with Judge Ding again presiding. Decheng stood with his two friends in the prisoners’ box to hear the sentences: Yu Zhijian, life imprisonment. He’s going to live. Yu Dongyue, 20 years. He will too. Finally, Lu Decheng, 16 years. All three of us.
Released after nine years of psychological torture and harsh physical labour, Lu managed to make his way to Canada in 2006. There he met author Denise Chong, who would soon find herself involved in Lu’s continuing story, as she reports exclusively in Maclean’s:
Lu had escaped China by trekking over mountains and through jungle, into Burma, then into Thailand; afterwards the Chinese government refused his wife, Xialing, and young son, Mang, exit visas. Lu and his private sponsors in Calgary, some of them involved in Chinese pro-democracy movements abroad, decided on a new tactic. His wife would apply for a seven-day tourism permit to Hong Kong, from where she would attempt escape, with hopes that police there, unlike in China, might be unsuspecting. Officials in Liuyang, where she lived, scoffed at her playing tourist. Still, she reapplied, only to be refused again and again.
Abruptly and without explanation, about a year later, officials granted her a permit. My telephone rang in Ottawa. It was Lu and his friends in Calgary, seeking my views on what to do next. We decided Lu’s wife should move with all haste. The next day, Xialing and Mang, then 8, left their flat, carrying only an overnight bag. They boarded a bus to the busiest land crossing into Hong Kong—we’d ruled out air and rail on the thinking that officials check such passengers more closely. Even as the two of them rode the bus, I conferred urgently with friends working in human rights. At their intervention, Canadian diplomats worked, some around the clock, to ready the necessary visas.
We tracked their progress by cellphone, all the while wondering if Chinese police were doing the same. Once into Hong Kong, Lu’s wife bought a new cellphone—we’d advised her to ditch her old one—and picked up the Canadian visas. The most anxious interval of silence came once we knew they were at the airport. Would Hong Kong police or officials stop them when they checked in? At passport control? The gate? Detain them or arrest them? Finally, Lu’s cellphone rang again in Calgary. His wife said she and their son were on board, the doors of the plane had closed, it was readying for takeoff. Tears flowed.
Far away in Ottawa, when word reached me, mine did too.
Excerpted from Egg on Mao. Copyright © 2009 Denise Chong. Reproduced by arrangement with publisher Random House Canada. All rights reserved.