An afternoon in a Chinese cop shop: Wang and Von Geldern recount story of arrest

By Angela Whited

Just a week before China’s Three Gorges Dam became operational on June 6, Seminar Coordinator Mike Monahan and International Studies Dean Ahmed Samatar received a phone call in Shanghai from Professors Jim Von Geldern and Wang Ping:
“We’re being arrested. Don’t worry. We’ll check in every half hour, if we don’t something’s wrong.”

Rumors of human rights violations in the relocation process of about one million people necessary for the completion of the dam project had brought the Macalester professors to the Three Gorges area of China. Wang, an English professor, and Von Geldern, a Russian professsor, were speaking to one man, already three days past his eviction date, who refused to leave the house his grandfather built, when they drew a small crowd of unhappy people.

Wang’s ongoing research project deals with the changing face of the Chinese countryside and the farmers who live there. She has told and continues to tell their stories through her writing and photographs. Naturally, she took pictures of the villagers that day.

“It was probably the photos that got us in trouble,” Von Geldern said.

Finishing their business around 1 p.m., the professors climbed into their rented car and started the slow trek up the side of the valley. They were almost out when the police cruiser roared past and cut them off. “Our driver, for some reason, in this little putt-putt car, was trying to outrun them,” Von Geldern said.

“I knew immediately they were going to take my camera,” Wang said.

Unwilling to forfeit so significant a portion of her research on the trip, Wang and Von Geldern switched the memory card in the camera to a blank one while driving to the police station.

“Both of us have spent a lot of time in socialist countries and have been arrested times before,” Von Geldern said. “Ping knew exactly what we needed to do.”

“I hid my notebook and memory cards under the taxi driver’s seat,” Wang said. “When we got out I took a few shots at random. The cop made me erase the card.”

Wang said she thought the policeman who arrested them was just following orders. “At the beginning he was very serious, but he lightened up after a while,” she said.

“He said we were being arrested for violating the law that forbade us from talking to migrants,” Von Geldern said. “I asked what that law was, and he didn’t know.”

Since Von Geldern was a foreigner—Wang is a Chinese national—they had to wait for the customs officials to arrive before proceedings could begin. The afternoon dragged on and the professors were growing tired and hadn’t eaten.

“Jim’s hand was shaking and trembling,” Wang said. “I think the cop was worried something bad would happen [to Jim] and he would get in trouble.”

“The guy goes out and orders noodles and serves us tea while we wait,” Von Geldern said.

Needing to pass the time, Wang made conversation with the policeman.

“Ping’s a very gifted interviewer,” Von Geldern said. “She so completely charmed this policeman, I don’t think he knew what was going on.”

She learned that the arresting officer had grown up on the Russian border with his parents who were from the Three Gorges area. He’d moved back to the area to become a cop when his parents retired.

“He [the policeman] knew some Russian poems and started reciting,” Wang said.
When the customs officials arrived, however, the policeman stopped chatting and became all business, Wang said.

According to Wang and Von Geldern, the officials attempted to make them confess to a crime they had not committed while the professors insisted they were only tourists. They spent most of their time negotiating about words.

“One of them put together protocol of an interrogation that never took place to exonerate us,” Von Geldern said. “He wrote it out, we signed it, and they let us go. The whole thing took two to three hours.”

And the statement they signed?
“We are tourists. We promise to remain tourists and ask no questions.”