For two weeks in August, the world's eyes were focused on the athletic achievements, pomp and carefully filtered circumstance of the 29th Summer Olympics in Beijing. For every flash of American swimmer Michael Phelps' golden grin or sprightly gymnast Shawn Johnson's determined stare, only slight glimmers of Chinese oppression — the lip-syncing little girl, the computer-generated fireworks,the reportedly falsified ages of the Chinese gymnastic team — were allowed to creep through. Everything, it would seem, went off without a hitch.
Not so for 28-year-old Brian Conley, a Philadelphia filmmaker and Orlando native. Conley and photographer Jeffrey Rae tagged along with members of Students for a Free Tibet, documenting the group's protests of China's Tibet policy at the Beijing Olympics.
The group arrived Aug. 10, and having filmed one small protest Aug. 13, Conley was simply enjoying the sights — and the food — of China, like any tourist would. But early in the morning of Aug. 19, he was awakened by Chinese officials banging on his hotel room door. That day, he, Rae and four others were detained for disturbing the peace, locked in a cell for five days and fed mystery stew, a hard-boiled egg and one serving of scalding tap water daily. They were released Aug. 24, the day the Olympics concluded. Two days after his release, Conley — on the phone, while traveling to Philadelphia from New York — recalls the side of China that China doesn't want the world to see.
Orlando Weekly: Did you get any guff at that Aug. 13 protest?
Brian Conley: You know, the plainclothes officers were very hostile, definitely. And in fact there was a reporter from ITV who was arrested at that protest … but pretty much once I backed off and sort of kept my wits about me, I didn't really feel like I was being specifically threatened. ... I wasn't there as an activist. I'm not a member of Students for a Free Tibet. I'm a filmmaker and a documentary filmmaker.
What was your initial take on China?
China was great. I thought the people were wonderful. … You know, it's really sad to me. I felt like everything was nice. We had a great time. And then as soon as the Chinese authorities had decided that you had done something inappropriate or you had overstepped bounds, the hammer came down.
What happened the night of your arrest?
I was sick. I ate something bad or drank some water by accident so I excused myslf and went back to the hotel. And I took the key — we only had one key — and I was fully expecting that Jeff would be knocking on the door later. Around 2 a.m., there was a knock on the door. There was another knock, and I said, "Dude, just look." And then a third knock and I heard, "This is the police. Open the door." And they were fairly gentle with me.
So I was taken out of the hotel and I was put into a black sedan-type car that was sitting in front of hotel. I was told, "Don't worry, there are some foreigners and some Chinese people who are threatening Americans and other foreigners and we're doing some investigations for your safety and trying to make sure that everything's OK." Which is very bizarre. And then, while we were sitting in the car, I heard the trunk open and I realized that they were putting all of my belongings and Jeff's luggage also into the trunk. At which point I realized that this was not a mistake and they were misrepresenting the reason they were taking me.
You know, as far as the Chinese are concerned, I was never arrested. They have what they call "administrative detention," which is not an arrest.
How did they explain that to you?
It's a prison. So, basically we were interrogated for 22 hours. And Chinese law, as far as I understand it, you can be interrogated for 24 hours before they have to arrest you or choose to detain you. It's not a detention for the first 24 hours, it's just an investigation.
What kind of questions were they asking you for 22 hours?
At first they were asking, like, "Why are you here? What protests were you at?" I just stonewalled them. I basically said, "I'm a tourist." And at one point I realized that I still had videos that they would be able to access of the protest at the cultural park. So I said, "Yeah, we were walking around the Olympics area and we saw this protest happening so we thought we'd shoot some video."
And they were like, "Why were you shooting video of the protest?" And I said, "I shot video of a lot of things. I shot video of people walking down the street, I shot video of cool architecture, I shot video of a protest. Why would that be illegal?" And they said, "Well, you know, that's Chinese law, and you don't know Chinese law and you should be more careful. You should be more informed about China law before you come to China."
What was the detention center like?
I was held 24 hours a day in a 12-foot by 30-foot space with a bathroom and a shower attached to that with 10 other people. There were rules printed in English on the wall of the cell and if I didn't follow those rules, I would get yelled at in Chinese, so we really didn't know.
What kind of rules were they?
A listed schedule: Sleep is from 10 `p.m.` to 6:30 `a.m.`, breakfast is from this time, then this time is washing up, then this time is sitting and studying and going outside if you have outdoor activities. Of course, nobody ever went outside. Then it said this time is lunch, and after lunch it was two hours of nap time. At which point we had to get out our bedding and lie down, or at least sit down the entire time.
How did the news come down that you were going to be released?
The `U.S.` embassy came down to meet us on `Aug. 22`, which was four days after we'd been detained, and basically they didn't know anything at the time. They asked us if we had been charged and what we'd been charged with. We were told that we violated Article 23 of the law, which as I understand it is like disturbing the peace or doing something to offend China.
I asked `the Chinese authorities` about it while we were being interrogated. There were all these people there who actually did disservices and I was just there shooting some video. … And I was actually told repeatedly that because I was not just expressing my opinion, but that I was actually working to distribute images of people speaking out in China internationally … that that was far more illegal, far more egregious, far more offensive to the Chinese nation. They were making an example of us so that no one would try to do this again.
`On Aug. 24` they took us out. They processed us. And then we were driven to the airport. We were told repeatedly that they would be buying us a ticket and that we didn't need to worry about the cost of our ticket, which is what we also told the embassy, who were very surprised that that's what we were told. Then we were put on one of these airport shuttle buses, and at that point one of the officers said, "OK, it's time to get your credit card so everyone can buy their ticket!"
Watching the Olympics close, there were suggestions that China was moving forward with human rights and freedom of speech. But do you get that sense after what you went through?
I think that maybe things will change eventually. I felt that the officers that were older were definitely much more antagonistic with us, definitely much angrier about the situation than the younger officers. I mean, I was even told by one guy that we were lucky we hadn't done this in the '70s because we would have been tortured and probably killed. Honestly, I don't think it's going to happen quickly if it's going to happen at all.
That evening `of our release` at the airport I was struck repeatedly by one of the plainclothes officers. They took my picture — and they had been taking our pictures constantly because, as far as we understand it, to show, "See, we don't mistreat people." You know, I understand that I shouldn't have done this, but I was tired and stressed out, and I gave them the finger when they were taking the last photo. The two guys hit me in the face and knocked my glasses off, and while I was bending down to pick them up I was hit in the back of the head. And then the two plainclothes guys both came at me, and I just grabbed my stuff — my wallet, my credit card — from the table and sort of pushed my way out of the room firstname.lastname@example.org
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